Baggage Identification System Eases Connections at Toronto Pearson

Rebecca Kanable
Published in: 

Passengers connecting to U.S. destinations in Terminal 1 at Toronto Pearson International Airport (YYZ) no longer have the hassle of claiming and rechecking their baggage, thanks to the airport's new multimillion-dollar baggage system. The Baggage Image and Weight Identification System (BIWIS), which streamlines the Customs process by capturing image and weight information for each bag inducted into the system, went live in January.

"It's improved the customer experience," reports Amaury Godin, manager of guest flow and facilitation for the Greater Toronto Airports Authority.

With YYZ ranking as Canada's largest airport and a Top 10 global port of entry into the United States, the scope of the change is significant. During the busy summer travel season, YYZ handles an average of 2,500 connection bags per day, reports Mark Hamilton, the Terminal 1 baggage services manager.

Until earlier this year, passengers connecting through to the United States had to claim their bags at


Project: Baggage Image & Weight Identification System

Location: Toronto Pearson Int'l Airport

Owner & Operator: Greater Toronto Airports Authority

Estimated 2012 Passengers: 34.5 million

Key Elements: Bag room input stations, passenger waiting kiosks, flight processing displays, SmartDrop BIWIS server database, passenger waiting area management terminals, Customs terminals, baggage recall system

Timeline: Discussions began in 2010, system went online in Jan. 2013

BIWIS Software, Hardware, Controls Work, Consulting: Brock Solutions

Conveyor Electrical & Mechanical Work: Vanderlande Industries

Key Benefits: Improved customer experience, less space devoted to queuing, increased security; competitive advantage for airport & airlines

YYZ's in-transit preclearance facility, carry them through Customs, then place them on a conveyor. To make matters worse, a baggage carousel took up much of the room inside the in-transit preclearance facility. "Passengers were cramped waiting around the carousel to get their bags," recounts Godin.

When the new BIWIS was installed, the airport removed the carousel and added seating - some with coveted power outlets. Now, passengers and their mobile devices can recharge while bags are inducted into the BIWIS system. An airports authority new release estimates that 800,000 guests per year will benefit from the baggage system upgrade.

Discussions regarding the complex project began about 21/2 years ago. Brock Solutions was selected to provide consulting, BIWIS software, hardware and controls work (for the conveyor reconfiguration). Vanderlande Industries performed the electrical and mechanical work.

Janet MacMillan, Brock Solutions' account manager for Greater Toronto Airports Authority and Air Canada, outlines key reasons why it makes sense not to have passengers pick up their bags:

  • Passengers have to be rescreened, and if they touch their bags, then the bags also have to be rescreened. (Depending on which country the bag is coming from, screening may still be required.)

  • Less queuing space is required in the Customs Hall if passengers aren't lugging baggage with them.

  • Security is enhanced in Customs areas if passengers don't arrive with bags.

Not having to pick up bags is especially beneficial for families with small children and passengers in wheelchairs who require additional assistance, adds Jason Odey, Air Canada's manager of general operations baggage and hub connection performance.

He also acknowledges more widespread benefits. "We see far less baggage mishandlings with the BIWIS process, and BIWIS has sped up the connection process here in YYZ when connecting to the U.S.," he says.

Before BIWIS

Needless to say, airlines were not fans of YYZ's previous system that required passengers connecting to the United States to recheck their bags. "It was a very onerous connection process," recalls Paul Loyen, Air Canada director of resource planning and hub strategy.

With such transfer passengers representing "a very large growth opportunity" for Air Canada, the carrier is enthusiastic about process improvements at its hub airport. YYZ, in turn, is pleased to be able to offer more seamless connections - a move designed to accommodate growth, including an increasing amount of global connecting traffic. From a competitive standpoint, project stakeholders wanted to align YYZ with other Canadian airports that already have BIWIS service for originating and connecting passengers.

Those airports also don't have the same quantity of transfer passengers that Toronto does (nor do they need an area to hold passengers until their bags have been processed), notes Alex Peirce, Brock Solutions' project manager. 

"Basically, we needed a solution that would allow CBP (U.S. Customs and Border Protection) to positively match the bag with the customer," explains Loyen.

The fix was a complex project that included the many entities (the airport authority, YYZ's airlines, CBP) and affected many parts of the passenger transfer experience.

"Getting everyone on the same page with what the system would do, understanding everyone's process so we could tailor the system to fit their needs or helping them understand how they might need to change some of their processes, was a challenge," recalls Peirce.

Even though other airports have similar transfer BIWIS equipment, officials still had to review the process at YYZ to ensure it met all CBP requirements. "That can take time," notes Peirce. "Anytime anything changes, they have to review the process again - that's the nature of it."

Devising the specific strategy and configuration was no easy task. "There were probably an infinite number of combinations of how we could have put this system together," explains MacMillan. "Trying to narrow it down to the solution we put in and have all the different stakeholders buy into this vision, it just speaks again to the complexity of the project."

Ultimately, the team agreed on retrofitting the airport's current system within its existing footprint. YYZ already had an inbound induction belt. To upgrade with BIWIS capabilities, system planners added a camera, tag reader, scale and shortened the conveyor belt by six feet to accommodate new components.

A conveyor belt was also added from the bag room to the back of the Customs screening area to expedite the process of sending bags to Customs.

Continuing to serve passengers in the airport's in-transit preclearance facility while the BIWIS was being installed was a major test - one the team passed with no baggage delays, reports Godin.

CBP and the three main carriers that fly to the United States tested the new BIWIS with 15,000 to 20,000 bags before the system went live. "The trials, which began in the third quarter last year, allowed us to tweak some of our processes," relates Odey.

The Passenger Experience

With the new BIWIS in place, passengers arrive in the same area where the claim unit used to be and scan their outbound boarding pass at a kiosk. The system then asks several questions which vary from passenger to passenger. One common question is: Are you traveling with family members? (If the answer is yes, the kiosk prompts them to scan their boarding passes.) The system also often asks if passengers are members of NEXUS, a cooperative U.S./Canadian program for pre-approved, low-risk travellers entering either country at designated ports of entry.

After responding to the questions and confirming the number of bags they have, passengers are directed to wait in a designated area until their names appears on an overhead flight processing display.

Two banks of flat screen have five displays showing guest status, flight status, instructions ("scan, look, go") and information about Toronto and the airport. A third bank of screens has the same five displays plus an additional screen that shows a live feed of one section of the baggage belt, so passengers can watch bags flowing through the system.

When a bag has passed through the input station, the name of its corresponding passenger appears on the guest status screen. Algorithms running in the background of the BIWIS determine the order that names appear, based on various criteria including flight time. If a passenger is traveling with two bags, his or her name won't show up on the display until both bags have gone through the input station.

Airline agents are posted at "management terminals" in the passenger waiting area to help passengers with missing bags and resolve other issues.

After passengers' names appear on a display, they scan their boarding pass again, which lets the BIWIS know that they are leaving the waiting area. Impatient passengers who scan their passes prematurely are automatically instructed to wait.

Passengers then line up for the primary inspection line where Customs officers scan their boarding passes. Officers in baggage review stations at primary and secondary inspection stations can see each passenger's information, as well as information about his or her checked bag(s), such as the image and weight. Officers use that information (instead of the actual physical bags) to decide whether to send each passenger with bag(s) for additional screening or to clear them for entry into the United States.

After transfer passengers are cleared, they must pass through security before going to their gate. This policy was the same before and after the BIWIS installation, because passengers arriving from international flights mix with passengers arriving from domestic flights that are connecting to the United States.

The Baggage Experience

Transfer bags are loaded from arriving aircraft into one of two BIWIS input stations, where their tags are scanned and the bags are photographed, weighed and checked for radiation. Each file of baggage information is associated with its corresponding passenger information and stored in the SmartSuite database.

"That's all automatic," says Peirce, noting that operators are also on hand to scan bags manually or pull them off the conveyor if there are any problems, such as unreadable tags. 

Oversized items or objects that are not conveyable, such as large electric wheelchairs, are processed through special input stations.

From the input stations, bags are conveyed to a sortation system, which sends them directly to specific gates for loading onto outbound flights.

If a passenger gets flagged for more screening, the Customs officer can request that passenger's bag(s). Screens above the makeup units in the bag room display information for recalled bags, and operators place them on a conveyor that delivers them to Customs.

"There are tracking points to make sure the bags are coming up to Customs in a timely manner and alerts if bags get lost in the sortation system going back up to Customs," notes Peirce.

Just as the BIWIS tracks passengers until they leave the Customs area, it also tracks bags from the input station until they are sorted to a pier or called upstairs for secondary screening.

Because passengers must wait until their bag is inducted at an input station, Peirce says that the BIWIS doesn't really speed up the passenger process. It is, however, expected to reduce delayed baggage for transfers to the United States, because the baggage no longer travels upstairs to the passenger.

International to Domestic

Air Canada is confident with the new BIWIS, and, in fact, wants it to be expanded, says Loyen.

YYZ and other Canadian Class 1 airports are working with the Canada Border Services Agency to introduce an international to domestic connections program, reports Godin. The process would be similar to the one used for passengers and bags connecting to U.S. destinations through YYZ.

"We want to remove the bag from the passenger's hand if they're connecting from an international flight to a domestic flight," explains Godin.

With compliments from passengers flowing in about YYZ's first process enhancement, another change seems likely.


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