Welcome to episode 11 of Check-in. Today we’re further exploring the topic of end-to-end baggage logistics from an airport’s perspective and are delighted to be joined from The Netherlands by Schiphol Airport’s programme lead for baggage Ronald Hoff. Ronald is responsible for the programme development of all baggage solutions in the future, so gives us an idea of what’s coming our way in the short, medium and long-term.
A – Hello everyone, and it’s great to have you with us once again on Check-in… the Vanderlande airports podcast.
I hope that you’ve been enjoying series two so far, and I’m pleased to say that the great guests keep on coming.
As you might remember, Ad Rutten joined us in an earlier episode to discuss end-to-end baggage logistics, and how the approach can benefit airports.
And in today’s episode, we’ll be taking this one step further and looking at end-to-end baggage from an airport’s perspective… Schiphol Airport, in fact.
I’m pleased to say that Schiphol’s Ronald Hoff joins us on the line to further explore this fascinating topic.
So, let’s go ahead and collect Ronald from our virtual departures lounge…
Ronald, thanks for joining us on Check-in today, how are things with you?
R – I’m fine Andrew, thanks for asking.
A – And where are you joining us from today?
R – Currently, from my study at home, Alphen aan den Rijn, in the middle of The Netherlands – close to the airport, where I’ve already lived for almost 30 years, I think… at least more than 25.
A – For the benefit of our listeners, please tell us a bit about yourself, Ronald. What is your role and responsibilities at Schiphol Airport?
R – My current role is the one of being programme lead for baggage, which means I’m responsible for programme development of all baggage solutions in the future. My scope is normally from now until ten years, and I do a kind of bridge… the masterplan into projects, to realise future baggage solutions.
A – And how long have you been at the airport, Ronald? Have you always been in the same role, or has there been an evolution in your career so far?
R – This is my second ‘tour’ with the airport you could say, I’ve been senior manager baggage, responsible for all baggage handling processes from 2001 to 2006, then being asked back at the end of 2017, so start of January 2018. First, in a more operational-like role, and then one-and-a-half years ago into this more programme development role… more master-planning activities.
A – OK. And if you’re a frequent business traveller, I guess some people might think of Schiphol Airport as being a second home – for want of a better phrase. Many listeners will be familiar with Schiphol, but for those who maybe don’t know much about Schiphol, can you tell us a little bit more about your airport, and perhaps your strategic ambition for the future.
R – Sure. If you look at Amsterdam Airport Schiphol, we’re an airport that’s especially organised around our main carrier – KLM – as part of SkyTeam. Because we are a hub, one of the 4-5 bigger airports in Europe, connecting international travellers and passengers. This is quite characteristic for our airport, because we are only a small country – 18 million people – still processing over 70 million passengers a year, that was pre-COVID. We expect to come back to those volumes some years from now. So, being a hub is quite a substantial part of what we do. Furthermore, we are very proud that we are one of the leading airports in the world if you look at passenger experience. Like you said, Andrew, people travelling through Schiphol do appreciate the way we organise our airport. Especially, since all connections can be made under one roof, so no connections between terminals. It’s one big organisation and you can make the connection in a pleasant way.
A – And I guess – talking as a guy from the UK, and I think of Heathrow – I guess it’s the same for Schiphol in The Netherlands, it’s a very important transport and logistics hub in your country?
R – Yeah, it is. We are a ‘main port’ as we call it, our purpose is to make those connections. And Schiphol is very proud because in Europe we provide the highest number of connections with our airline partners… within a reasonable time and to a high quality. So, we think we are doing well in this logistics process, well, it is a challenge.
A – And today’s discussion is going to be about end-to-end baggage logistics. As regular listeners will know, we’ve touched on this before. But it’s nice to be joined by someone from an airport, where this is obviously going to be more of a reality. I guess to kick us off Ronald, what are we referring to with the term ‘end-to-end baggage logistics’?
R – Well, if we’re talking about end-to-end baggage logistics, then we really see the process at the airport as a whole – working together with the airlines and the handlers. But our focus is even a little bit wider, because we see how we want to manage our baggage handling process, that already starts when the outstations are loading the baggage into the ULDs, or the aircraft, for arrival at Schiphol. Why’s that important? Because at least the hub carrier, the SkyTeam partners, offering these connections – well, they have sold their passengers reliable and competitive connections, so end-to-end baggage logistics is all about making those connections within a very short timeframe. Therefore, we need baggage coming in in a specific order, we still try to influence that order here at the airport. But just to be sure that all connections are being made in the time left for those connections… even if schedule change. And that for us is the big challenge. So, we do not look at baggage logistics as our baggage handling system processing bags, because that’s only a part of what we are here for. Perhaps not the most traditional role an airport plays, but that’s at least how we look at the logistics process.
A – And how is the end-to-end baggage logistics process… how has it evolved in the industry over recent years? Has it been around for a long time or a short time? What is the recent history of the end-to-end approach?
R – At Schiphol, it started with the first step into automation… I think in the late 1980s. And in the 90s, we became more and more aware that we needed to integrate at least our baggage handling system more, because also we were extending the baggage handling system. As we speak now, we have four baggage handling areas, and another one being expected several years from now. But we introduced a concept where these baggage handling areas work as a whole… as an integrated system, providing those connections to our airlines. So, from being only responsible for hardware, we also changed our responsibilities more and more into the logistics process. We had to grow, because the handlers, the airlines, found themselves responsible for their passengers and their bags. So, we also had to work on that relationship with our handlers and airlines, working on a more integrated process. And one of the things we did is that we built a kind of concept where our baggage handling areas are like modules within one broader logistics concept, where systems work together, to provide those short connections.
A – It’s interesting… so, somebody didn’t just wake up one day in the 80s and go “do you know what would be a good idea, an end-to-end integrated approach!” So, I think the word ‘evolution’ is quite important there. An interesting question I’d like to ask is whether you as an airport first decided to do that, or was it more of a push from the airlines and handlers, or was it a joint thing? What was the catalyst and how did it begin back in the 80s?
R – Well, it wouldn’t be fair to take the credit for this development, or this evolution as you called it, Andrew. I guess the awareness grew between airlines and the airport, that we are in this together. So, in the late 90s… and I’ve been involved since 2001, more and more airlines in the airport worked together to create this one, integrated concept. Knowing that we needed one another to come up with the best business case. And it even led to investments in 2003 to 2010, where the airport invested heavily in equipment, to support a new kind of baggage handling process, with more automated handling like robots, leading to a higher price for the airlines, but the revenues were in their operational processes… because of less staff and a higher quality. So, this was actually the first time we built this business case together, and that made it possible to join forces and come up with these new end-to-end logistics processes. And this way of working is what we do today, still, because also with new investments coming in… we are closely working together with our customers to find the best solution.
A – Yeah, I like the feeling of joining forces there… I think you can achieve lots more if you combine, and share knowledge and expertise, and work together for a common goal, of course. For you, what are the benefits to airports such as Schiphol of an end-to-end approach?
R – Well, it’s all about service. Just one example that we’re bringing in today is sharing more information. That sounds a little bit silly, because everybody expects that airlines and airports do already share information – and of course, we do – but this is the next step where we try and make a connection to the airline systems that we already know upfront when things are coming in. Because, what we see more and more, is that the possibilities we have to invest in equipment are limited, to space and because of money. We have to try to get as much efficiency out of our equipment as we can. Therefore, we need to prioritise incoming bags, we want to process bags with the shortest connection first, and the bags with the longer connections after. That sounds like a very simple principle, but you can only do that if you have the information upfront, which bags are coming in and how you need to process them at the airport. Because, at the airport, when bags actually touch the ground, we want to be able to manage the order in which we process them in our baggage handling areas. Therefore, we need this information… we need the ability to influence the order of which bags are being processed. And we do not handle these bags ourselves, this is what the handler does. So, we need the information to inform them, what capacity we have available, and when it’s going to be a little bit congested… how do we deal with this congestion? So, the handler then knows “OK, I have these bags to choose from, let me process these bags first because they have the highest priority”.
A – Interesting, and it’s a topic that’s come up a few times on Check-in, and we always like exploring it further. I particularly like how you manage this type of situation, but you mentioned the handlers, the airlines… as we know at an airport, there are so many stakeholders and people involved from the minute you check-in a bag to the time that you get it at your destination airport. So, what’s your perspective on that cooperation, how are you experiencing that stakeholder management?
R – Well, like you said Andrew, there are a lot of parties involved. And we consider all those parties our stakeholders. Whether it’s the airline or the handler, or even security or the ministry, and also our suppliers. We consider them all to be stakeholders, so what we try to do is find a way of working, where everybody is part of the new solutions and the new concepts. So, we also reach out to our suppliers to help us to come up with new ideas, new suggestions, and even introduce solutions from other industries to improve the way we handle bags at the airport. Surely, the airlines and handlers are the biggest stakeholders, because we are only a part of their processes… the airport process is not a process in itself, but part of a chain in which the airlines and handlers are running. So, we also have to be a little bit modest, and we can only do this together with all the parties involved. For us, that’s a very important principle on how we do things at the airport.
A – Very good. And it’s 2021, as you know we’ve had a very difficult year. But 2021 is very different to the early 80s, when this end-to-end approach may have surfaced as you mentioned. So, in today’s climate, how do factors such as COVID-19 and sustainability – which is becoming more important to airports – how do those influence the end-to-end baggage process?
R – Well, it does make things a little more complex. Because, if you look at COVID-19, our expectation – and you already see that happening – is that we need more space, more process steps to go through, before we can actually board a passenger on board a plane, or how this is going to affect baggage handling. Well, we do not know yet, but we expect additional steps and procedures in the process. So, we need to deal with those. At the same time, what we also see is that 2021 is perhaps not so different than the pre-COVID period, because if we look at how we are going to build back to a more normal situation because of us being a hub, we see in early mornings volumes already going up to like before COVID. So, this early morning peak is where all airlines and handlers try to concentrate their connections. So, the challenges are a little bit different, and at the same time, quite similar to what we had before.
A – And just to be clear on sustainability… I know Schiphol, from reading a lot of your literature and being at the airport, you pride yourself on being quite innovative and sustainable airport, so what consideration do you make of sustainability when you’re trying to link all those steps, that end-to-end approach.
R – I guess from a baggage handling perspective sustainability is quite hard to turn into concepts. Sure, we look at energy consumption of the baggage handling system, but the highest contribution we can make to sustainability is to see to it that we have the most efficient process, we can organise among one another, that we do not use more space than is strictly needed… we do not put more equipment in than strictly needed. So, reducing the carbon footprint from a baggage handling perspective, because these huge machines consume a lot of electricity, is a little bit difficult. A few days ago, I had a conversation with one of our suppliers, and we also addressed this topic. What can we do? Knowing that we use quite a lot of infrastructure to make this process happen. What can we do on sustainability? That’s still an issue from the baggage handling perspective. As an airport, sure we try everything to reduce our CO2carbon footprint, discussing the type of aircraft fuel, but that’s not within my scope and what I do on a daily basis. If you look at sustainability, we try to focus on sustainable labour. The challenge we see is that although automation, mechanisation, is already a topic since the late 80s, manual labour is still a very important part of the baggage handling process – a very crucial part of the baggage handling process – which we would really like to change. As one of my colleagues phrased it several months ago: “our ambition is to take the robot out of the human”. Because people working a lifetime employment in baggage handling… that’s not feasible anymore, that’s not a solution. So, we have to come up with alternatives to take out the manual interfaces.
A – What about further ahead? What does end-to-end baggage logistics mean to Schiphol Airport, what is your vision on the future with regards to this topic?
R – Well, my profession is to look at the future, and to find ways to come up with the new end-to-end baggage handling process… I guess a part of it will still be kind of traditional. Because we need equipment to handle the bags, because these are physical things that people take along with them, and I guess something that is happening now and also in the future. When we look at the baggage handling process, we see several developments we want to take in and try to convert in our process, like artificial intelligence. We already use robots, since 2010/2011, we introduced robots known from the automotive industry and we rebuilt them and adjusted them so they could handle bags. One of the next steps we foresee is using artificial intelligence, perhaps developing new kinds of grippers, we can build a new generation of robots, which is even more successful than the ones we use nowadays. We also try to take a look at the warehouse industry, the developments that occur. Like for instance, automated guided vehicles, we see that technique as a possibility to create a more flexible logistics process. Because the equipment we use nowadays are large pieces of equipment that do the trick, but are very flexible. So, if we can reduce the size of these machines and make smaller-like building blocks, for instance by using automated guided vehicles, then we can create more stability within the limited space we have. And that together with mechanisation, to reduce physical labour, and I guess data-sharing (as I mentioned before), managing the data in between airlines, handlers and ourselves… to manage the logistics process even better. I guess those are the bigger steps we try to take in the upcoming 10 years of development.
A – And you’ve touched upon quite a few things, and so many are important there… so, the digital transformation we see, technologies, the solutions. Maybe this is an interesting question… if you had carte blanchein your role, Ronald, and you could select solutions and IT systems – potentially they might not even exist in the market – but what would you paint as being the ideal picture for the end-to-end baggage process, like I say, if you had free reign to integrate it?
R – How to say… there’s an artist who painted a picture many years ago where these individual bags are flying around from aircraft to aircraft! I guess that’s a silly picture to paint, but the truth in there is that ideally you would like to connect one individual incoming bag (and the incoming aircraft) to the outgoing aircraft. Skipping that process is the airport on the long term, probably doesn’t make sense, because then you have one plane flying passengers and another plane flying bags… I don’t think that makes sense. Our profession is to come up with the most efficient logistics process, and connect passengers and bags at our hub. But I guess if you look at all the steps we need to go through now, it would be nice if one individual bag could find his/her own way from the incoming aircraft to the outgoing aircraft. So that you have maximum flexibility and not all these big building blocks in between which provide grouping and de-grouping and manual handling etc. If I had to put a dot on the horizon, that would be my dot, I would say. Knowing perhaps that it’s kind of a silly dot, but at least gives the kind of direction on how we look at future baggage handling.
A – And if you’ll excuse the aviation pun, I think it’s not bad to do a bit of ‘blue sky’ thinking every now and again, Ronald.
R – No, I agree with you Andrew, but we also see that in aviation, aircraft are similar today as they were 40 years ago. And probably will be for the upcoming 20-30 years. Which already provides a boundary for us that we have to deal with. We have aircraft coming in with a specific shape, using ULDs and containers etc. and that for us is a kind of starting point, we have to build on to create our new end-to-end logistics.
A – And creating that process… how are you cooperating with industry partners and other interested organisations to make end-to-end logistics more of a reality?
R – Well, we try to keep the broadest scope we can. Looking at more traditional partners like the suppliers of baggage handling systems, which I have to say are the first we address, they are the first ones to call to help us out with these type of challenges. But we also look at universities and other industries, not just specifically being within the aviation industry, just to find out if we can adapt and (at) solutions we can pick up for our line of business. I still feel the robots we introduced in 2003/2004 are an example of how we keep this wider eye on other industries, because this was actually already being used in the automotive industry, which we rebuilt to be able to deploy it in our baggage handling area. And I guess like artificial intelligence, which is also not something that started within our industry, but started in other industries, could be a way to adapt technologies in our industry. And I’m not sure what other technologies will come up that can help us, but at least we keep an open eye, and try to bring all stakeholders together, and try to take a leading role as an airport to sometimes try something which is normally out of scope… to see if we can create a solution, or take the next step.
A – Well, that’s all we have time for on this edition of Check-in, which just gives me the chance to say – Ronald Hoff, from Schiphol Airport, thank you very much for joining us and good luck in bringing the end-to-end vision to life.
R – Thank you Andrew, it was my pleasure. Thank you for the invitation and I hope it suits the listeners to get more of an idea of what we do at the airport and how we look at our future.
A – Well, thanks for listening and thanks once again to today’s guest – Ronald Hoff from Schiphol Airport.
I do hope that you’ll Check-in with us once again, when we’ll be joined by another expert from the dynamic aviation industry.
Until next time, stay safe and goodbye for now.