Baggage handling 'crisis' to disrupt airports until end of August

Baggage handling 'crisis' to disrupt airports until end of August
Credit: Belga

The holiday season has been plagued by strikes, flight delays and cancellations, but to add to travel concerns, lost luggage is increasingly becoming a problem this summer.

Along with a lack of staff to deal with the rapid post-Covid rush for air travel, as well as numerous technical malfunctions, airports and airlines are having great difficulties in properly transporting passenger luggage.

“Inevitably, with more passengers than during a calm period, the risk of losing luggage is greater," Nathalie Pierard, spokesperson for Brussels Airport, told La Dernière Heure. She added that the issue is further complicated if passengers who have lost luggage aren't on the move, meaning "they have to be tracked to know where to send their luggage."

Yet this is not a new problem for Brussels Airport: for some time it has been looking for nearly 1,000 new staff members, from pilots and engineers to baggage handlers and hospitality staff.

Exponential increases

In the meantime, the trade unions have denounced the working conditions and staff shortages for weeks now.

“Since May, staff have been unable to keep up," said Sophie Crombain, permanent secretary at the General Confederation of Liberal Trade Unions of Belgium (CGSLB,) which is in charge of Zaventem airport and logistics.

"The airport is unable to absorb the volume of passengers and baggage, which have increased exponentially over the last four months," she said. "Basically, nothing works and the airport cannot recruit in sufficient quantities. Those who stay, pay the costs on the ground and are at their wit's end."

During the summer, Brussels Airport handles an average of between 40,000 and 50,000 pieces of baggage per day: as soon as the suitcases are checked in, they are handled by various airline handling companies.

In Zaventem, two main companies are active: French company Alyzia (which works closely with Brussels Airlines) and Aviapartner, a Belgian company which provides airport assistance and logistics services to airlines at 37 airports.

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"As an airport, we are responsible for the screening, tracking and security of baggage," said Pierard. "Once received, the suitcases go through several phases of state-of-the-art security. We pay attention to every detail. Occasionally, a lanyard or backpack strap gets caught in the mat, which can cause the system to crash."

Once they have passed the security tunnel, the suitcases are dispatched to the right planes, thanks to the labels put on them during check-in. When passengers arrive at their destination, they are directed to the baggage handlers of different airlines who manage the transfer of the suitcases.

“So if the traveller does not have their baggage on arrival, they should contact the company in question," Pierard said, adding that the handling company is usually fairly easy to find on the plane ticket.

Then, the baggage handler's role is to reship the baggage if it has not left Belgian territory. Buying baggage insurance is also an option, and allows travellers "to be compensated to buy back the things they need during the holidays. The amount obviously varies according to the insurance contract."

Untenable conditions

Crombain said that staff members are regularly asked to work last-minute on a voluntary basis, in return for compensation. "The lack of staff is everywhere: in security, at the level of guards but also in cleaning and other services."

She added that this is not because Brussels Airport and its partners want to work with fewer staff members, but because they failed to anticipate the increase in flights after the Covid-19 restrictions were lifted.

"There is a real management problem. The workers are frustrated because they cannot do their job well. The working conditions are untenable. I think the situation is going to be complex until the end of the month."

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