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The University of Southampton
Mathematical Sciences

Optimising baggage operations at London Heathrow Airport

London Heathrow Airport served over 80 million passengers annually at its pre-COVID-19 peak and handled an estimated 110 million pieces of baggage. Research by Professor Chris Potts has enabled the implementation of systems to optimise the allocation and delivery of baggage, leading to increased passenger satisfaction and tens of millions of pounds in cost savings for the airport and its airlines.

Context

With its large number of passengers, uncertainty in aircraft times and implications of baggage delay on multiple stakeholders, the smooth running of Heathrow’s baggage system poses a complex combinatorial optimisation problem.

Baggage operations represent a significant cost to airport operators and airlines, with around £100 incurred for each bag not delivered for collection by the passenger.

Baggage handling

Research challenge

Professor Chris Potts’ longstanding research leadership in combinatorial optimisation, and particularly his expertise in scheduling, led him to be chosen by Heathrow in 2012 to work on the optimisation of the airport’s baggage system. Potts drew upon techniques he developed for optimisation with multiple objectives and algorithms for on-line problems, in particular a project funded by EUROCONTROL for the efficient scheduling of aircraft landings.

Enabling the system to react quickly to disruptions in flight arrivals

Potts developed an algorithm for allocating baggage reclaims that incorporated multiple objectives, thereby helping to ensure that passenger waiting times for baggage were kept as low as possible, passenger crowding in the baggage hall was not excessive, and baggage handlers’ time was used effectively.

The Director of Operational Planning at Heathrow Airport stated that “the project showed us that allocation needed to be kept dynamic or we would need additional capacity to avoid congestion”.

As a result of Potts’ algorithm, the airport avoided the requirement to add an additional baggage reclaim area, saving an estimated £20 million in capital capital expenditure.

Expansion of Heathrow Airport

In 2016, an engineering consortium was awarded a £16 billion contract to manage Heathrow’s expansion, with consultancy Arup in charge of transforming the baggage handling systems.

Based on his research and existing work with Heathrow, Potts was approached by Arup to assist with the project. Specifically, he developed a data-driven performance tool that produced a better characterisation of the reasons for baggage being ‘short-landed’ – not transported with the passenger to the destination airport.

According to Arup, Potts’ tool improved Heathrow’s short-landed rate by around 20%, saving the airlines an estimated £10 million annually since the work was completed in late 2016.

 

Key Publication

List of all staff members in
Staff MemberPrimary Position
Chris PottsProfessor of Operational Research
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