With millions of people flying each day, it’s not surprising for people to imagine that their luggage will get lost in a sea of suitcases and find itself in a different country. Are you curious about what happens to your luggage and how your luggage is stored on planes?
This article will give you a detailed run through your luggage’s journey from the time you surrender it at the check-in counter to the time you anxiously wait for it to appear on the conveyor belt.
The complex baggage handling system is conducted by airport staff who are tasked to:
- Move the bags from check-in to the departure gate
- Transfer the bags from the arrival gate to the baggage claim area
- In the case of a transfer flight, move the bags from one gate to another
Step 1: Check-in to the Departing Gate
In most large airports, as soon as you check your bags in, it moves along the conveyor belt into a complex and fully automated system that utilizes the following:
- Automated scanners that scan the labels on the luggage
- Conveyors that have junctions and sorting machines that ensure that the luggage is routed to the correct gate
- Destination-coded vehicles (DCVs), automated carts which transport the bags at high speeds on a mini railway network.
From the check-in counter, your bag passes through a machine, double the size of the scanners you put your carry bags through. This machine is like an X-ray machine that sends a three-dimensional image to the transportation security administration (TSA) inspector in a nearby control room. They inspect the image to detect any suspicious items and illegally carried objects such as explosives.
If the bag is cleared, a green light flashes and forwards the bag to the conveyor belt and back into the luggage system. Bags that garner a red light (which means that the baggage is detected to contain a dangerous or illegal object, or at least suspected to) or white light (the machine is uncertain of its contents) are moved forward to a lower conveyor to the TSA inspection team.
For bags that are green-lighted, it takes roughly 5 minutes of travel from the counter to the airline luggage cart. All destination bags get to their dedicated carousel through the use of automated scanners that scan those baggage tags with huge barcodes.
Yep, they had a purpose after all.
Bags are then collected from the baggage make up area and are sorted by destination and flight numbers and onto the aircraft.
You don’t have to worry that someone might just sneak in and rob your luggage or that your luggage would accidentally fall off the tracks. The belts are equipped with sensors that set off an alarm when it detects lost baggage and luggage jams.
Step 2: Loading and Storage of Luggage inside the Plane
How is Luggage Loaded on Airplanes?
Once in the baggage make up area, bags are sorted and placed into carts or loaded containers (called unit load devices or ULDs) which are also marked with destination and flight number.
How and Where is Luggage Stored on Airplanes?
There are two ways of storing luggage in a plane depending on the type of aircraft: loose storage loading or unitized storage loading. The bags are loosely loaded on the floor of the cargo compartment/cargo hold on narrow-body aircraft or small to medium aircraft.
On large or wide-body aircraft, bags are stored on containers or ULDs which are loaded as units using deck loaders. They are placed in upper decks of cargo planes or lower decks of passenger planes.
Luggage in most U.S. airlines is tagged with “city,” “hot,” or “cold.” City means that the bag is going straight to the flight destination, while the latter two indicate that these bags are connecting onto other flights.
Hot and cold baggage is usually kept in a separate ULD and it’s the last one loaded, to ensure that they are the first ones off. This is to guarantee that they can be quickly sorted and redirected to their respective connecting flights.
Editor’s tip: Scared of your luggage getting damaged? Often times baggage is thrown around without much caution and stacked on top of each other, so the ones at the bottom can get squished pretty hard. Unless you invest in an expensive aluminum suitcase, a smarter choice would be to get a durable fabric suitcase that would be much less likely to crack or break under pressure.
Step 3: Unloading and Transfer of Luggage
Passenger’s luggage is unloaded as soon as the plane has landed. This happens simultaneously as passengers alight, with airline staff ready to quickly do the necessary transfers.
What Happens to Luggage after the Plane has Landed?
After an aircraft has landed, all destination baggage is offloaded from the plane and sent to destination conveyor belts to be delivered back to the passengers terminating their journey at the airport.
In the case of connecting flights, an airline agent picks up the transit luggage as quickly as possible and loads it in the connecting flight. Hot bags are moved directly to the flights at the ramp itself, while cold bags are transferred to the baggage make up area and handed over to the concerned airline.
Are Luggage Compartments on Planes Pressurized?
Yes, luggage compartments are pressurized in general. The round body of the aircraft is efficient at withstanding pressure. This means that everything contained in it is pressurized, including the luggage compartments found below.
This makes it possible to carry live cargo such as pets. To add, cargo holds are also climate-controlled, insulated, and some even have lights.
Does Checking My Luggage Early Mean That it Will be the Last off the Plane?
No. When loading, unit load devices or ULDs are weighed and arranged in the baggage hold according to their weight to ensure that the plane’s hold is balanced. This means that how far your luggage ends up will depend on the weight of the unit it is in and the needs of the specific airplane.
What Determines the Length of Time My Bag Arrives at the Carousel/Conveyor Belt?
Aside from the unloading order, the screening process that it goes through from the U.S. Customs Border Protection (CBP) and Transport Security Administration (TSA) determines the time it arrives at the carousel.
Also, the weight and the size of the luggage determines when and where it’s loaded. Heavier ones are placed at the bottom. Since heavy luggage is placed at the bottom, it will be unloaded later than the ones at the top, hence, a longer wait for the owner of the heavy bag.
Now you know that your luggage travels as extensively as you do. Thanks to the complex baggage system’s intelligent engineering, airline processes, including baggage transport, runs as smoothly and as efficiently as possible.
Now that you know where your luggage goes after check-in throw away all your worries and schedule your next big adventure!
Read Next: Should You Get an Aluminum Suitcase?