What Happens After You Check Your Bag

Yesterday, I attended the official launch of a new inline baggage screening system in Delta’s Terminal 5 at LAX. After taking the tour, it dawned on me that a lot of people probably don’t know what happens to their bags after they kiss them goodbye. So, let’s talk about it.

But first, let’s talk about what inline baggage screening is. You know when you go to a ticket counter, check bags, and then find out you have to drag your bags over to another place where they’ll screen them? That’s the old-school stopgap way of handling screening. Once the rules came out requiring 100 percent screening of all passenger bags, airports had to figure out how to shoehorn these massive machines into the existing baggage systems which were in no way designed for them. The easiest way was to simply plop a machine down in the ticketing lobby and make everyone drop their bags there. Then the bags would enter the system. This sucks for three big reasons.

  1. Those machines take up a lot of space and make for some cramped quarters in an already crowded ticketing area.
  2. It’s a real pain to drag your bags from the ticket counter back to the scanning machines and then wait in another line if a lot of people are there.
  3. It’s a really slow process to do it all manually.

As you can see below, the first and second problems are solved with inline bag screening. This view of Delta’s ticket counter at LAX was cluttered with CTX screening machines and now it’s much more open.

Delta Ticket Counter LAX

For those reasons, many airports have gone toward inline baggage scanning systems. These systems have traditionally been installed into the existing baggage system. So they shut down the system, stick some machines in there and then turn things back on. You might think this sounds easy, but it’s painful. These are usually pretty expensive and can take a couple years to install. This new system that was designed by Siemens acts a bit differently.

Instead of sticking the system into the existing framework, they build a new structure that contains all the bag screening equipment. Then they just divert the bags from the existing system into the new one for screening and then it goes right back into the existing system. In this case, they say it’s half the price of another system (this was $30 million) and it took “only” nine months. If you notice a new bulge on top of Delta’s Terminal 5 at LAX, that’s the new system. They just built it on top of the existing structure. At right in the picture below, you can see the ramp that was built to connect the existing systems to the new screening area.

Delta New LAX Bag Screening

Now, what happens to your bag? When you check it, the bag runs down belts into the baggage system. The first stop is the big CTX screening machines. There are four of these in Delta’s terminal at LAX. Once in the machine, a decision is made on whether there’s something potentially harmful in the bag or not using automation. If it’s not deemed harmful, the bag moves along. If there is a red flag, then the image is thrown up on a screen where a TSA agent decides whether or not it’s actually a threat. If there’s any question about it, the bag is sent to a TSA agent for a search.

After the security work is done, the bag goes back into the baggage system where it is then sorted so that it goes to the correct flight. In more sophisticated systems, there are a number of scanners that look at the bag tags and automatically decide at which gate the bag needs to be. I’m told they have over a 90 percent success rate in this terminal when it comes to reading the tags in Terminal 5 at LAX. Other places have a manual process for getting bags to the right airplane. Once at the gate, it’s loaded on the airplane and then it joins you on the flight to wherever you’re headed.

This sounds pretty easy, but there are a million exceptions. Oversized bags don’t fit on the belts, so they have a different process. Then, of course, there are connecting bags from Delta and from other airlines. Add mail and cargo to the mix and you’ve got a incredibly complex system.


16 Responses to What Happens After You Check Your Bag

  1. Frank says:

    In more sophisticated systems, there are a number of scanners that look at the bag tags and automatically decide at which gate the bag needs to be. I’m told they have over a 90 percent success rate in this terminal when it comes to reading the tags in Terminal 5 at LAX.
    =====================================================

    What’s happening to the other 10 percent? Back up: Manual scan?

    • Yup, Manual sorting. Before the 90s it used to be all manual sorting. The agent would put a tag on your bag that had your final destination, then if you were going through a hub, they’d slip a tag over it that gave the hub. Sadly I never saved any of these…

  2. Dan says:

    I spent a few years throwing bags for a now-defunct UAX carrier. Ah, the memories :) One thing that’s worth discussing in any talk about baggage systems is that the systems are set up to move bags en-masse, and that makes it hard to find any particular bag.

    For example, when we had IRROPS, bags from canceled flights would be dropped in our bag room in one giant pile. (Our bag room was basically one giant garage with absolutely no automation in it.) Yes, we would try to keep them organized, but after awhile, it would just all fall to pieces. Trying to find one particular bag in a sea of 500-1000 was always a challenge, and time consuming.

  3. In what part of the process is the bag in a spot so a worker or TSA agent can steal things out of bags? That seems to be an issue you read about so it must be where the machine kicks things aside for a human to check.

    It must have been fun to be in the under belly of the terminal. When I used to work at TWA and would use LAX for travel, we parked in the employee lot and took the TWA bus to/from the terminal and used the stairs under the terminal to enter/exit right into the gate area. Since 9/11 that wouldn’t be permitted now, but back then it was fun to see an area that only airport workers would see.

    • MathFox says:

      Let me first say that most luggage handlers don’t steal and they know the consequences of being caught.

      On the other hand, every time where people can handle luggage in relative privacy there is an opportunity for “lifting” something; automated handling reduces the opportunity for theft and rules like “always have someone watching on what the other does” help a lot too.
      Despite all that, there will be opportunities; you mentioned the manual TSA inspection (at least one TSA agent got caught there), but at all places where bags and suitcases are handled manually (from car to belt or belt to car) theft can happen (has happened, with expected results for the employee caught.)

      • amy says:

        Please don’t be so naive. I’ve lived and worked overseas for 10 years and have travelled much and have never had a problem with items getting stolen from my checked in bags in any country (even third world or developing countries)… outside the U.S. It’s ironic to me that you were able to observe Delta in action, because the one and only time I flew them back to my job in Japan from LAX, the TSA or perhaps Delta employees stole over $1,000 worth of library equipment from my bags. That was the first and only time that happened to me and it was the first and only time I flew Northwest/Delta internationally. After that incident and as a former journalist, I researched the topic on my own and spoke with many well-travelled people and discovered that it is a huge problem in the U.S. Small items from phone chargers to candy to larger items such as cameras and sports equipment are routinely stolen. These employees are able to walk away with there goods after a day’s work. I suppose it is what keeps them in the job since they are not paid well. Within the U.S. it is best to not pack anything of value (monetary or emotional) or that is irreplaceable in a checked-in bag. Send it by postal service or UPS.

  4. SEAN says:

    A better question is, What happens to You after you check your bag? You have an anxiety atack fearing you will never see your bag again. LOL

  5. Great look behind the scenes, Brett. Thanks for another informative and insightful post.

  6. Checking your bags can be a stressful and obnoxious experience. So many times have my bags been handled roughly, opened, and even misplaced for days and days. In my opinion, it is very risky to check bags while traveling. The best advice I can give is try to pack light enough for short trips so that you can carry on your bag instead of having to risk the mishaps that come along with checking a bag while traveling.

    • Brad says:

      The ground crew have better things to do than go rooting through your dirty undies for buried treasure. What you saw was probably the result of a TSA search. Carousel theft and bad packing is a much bigger problem. Make sure you are there when the bags come out and make sure your bag is zipped up all the way with nothing to snag.

      • amy says:

        As I mentioned in an earlier comment, TSA and airline employee theft from checked-in bags is rampant and quite a problem. Do a little research online and you will find some wonderful blogs and articles about it and the numerous comments from people who have actually found that underwear was missing, candy was partially eaten and, of course, other items of real value were missing. Now that the U.S. domestic airlines charge for checked-in baggage, they should ensure that your items do arrive.

  7. juries says:

    For so many years I’ve been travelling I haven’t experience problems about my luggages. They come to my hands as secure as I handed them for screening. Anyway, what they’ve been doing is for the safety of everybody.

  8. Pilot says:

    I was the Captain on a flight from Hong Kong to Narita for a large asian carrier. I had checked my bag in as I had completed all my Christmas shopping and had it all packed into the checked suitcase. When I collected it in Narita every one of the presents (electrical items) were gone, never to be seen again. The baggage handlers were with another carrier as Hong Kong is not our base, yet it goes to show that you can never be to careful when securing your luggage.

  9. Pingback: Ex-Pat Living: What Bothers You Most About Being Inspected? | Life Lessons

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