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Labor, tech cited for T-5 baggage woes

A passenger sleeps at Terminal 5 at Heathrow Airport on March 28, 2008 in London as numerous flights were canceled or delayed due to problems with baggage handling.

TEXT OF STORY

Kai Ryssdal: There's a special circle of air travel purgatory this week. It's Terminal Five at London's Heathrow airport.

Since T5 opened last Thursday, more than 250 flights have been cancelled -- dozens more were scrubbed today -- and there's a backlog of 19,000 suitcases that've been parted from their passengers.

Janet Babin reports from the Marketplace Innovations Desk at North Carolina Pubic Radio on why it's so hard to get your luggage from here to there.


Janet Babin: Automated baggage handling systems are designed to shuttle millions of bags to airports round the clock, so how come they're so delicate?

Mike Boyd: It's not rocket science, but what it's been turned into is something where you got way too many computers, way too many moving parts and the result is, it's a meltdown.

Consultant Mike Boyd says Heathrow's Terminal 5 needs to simplify its design. But it helps to remember the scale here: T5 is the largest single terminal in one of the busiest international airports in the world.

Everet Meyer with Jacobs Consultancy says the system is working as designed. It's the employees that aren't.

He says baggage handlers at Terminal 5 are British Airways employees with unresolved labor issues. When the new terminal opened, shift schedules got longer. Meyer blames industrial sabotage for the backlog:

Everet Meyer: There've been rumors, you know, of skis being inserted into the system and what we're hearing also is that the workers weren't adequately trained; they were not told where to park.

But it's hard to blame such an enormous backlog -- $49 million in disruption costs for British Airways -- on labor alone.

John Hansman directs MIT's International Center for Air Transportation. He says automated baggage systems use a relatively old technology -- barcode scanning -- and they're ripe for redesign:

John Hansman: There are people looking at alternative technologies, things like Radio Frequency ID chips and things like that in the tags.

But any new baggage ID system would have to be global, so if one airport is upgraded, they'd all have to follow.

That may be hard to accomplish, but it probably sounds good to the thousands of people stranded at Heathrow's Terminal 5.

I'm Janet Babin for Marketplace.

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