One handbag rule – potential to make money for some, lose money for others

Last week (Jan 21, 2022), the DG – CISF (Central Industrial Security Force) wrote to Bureau of Civil Aviation Security (BCAS) requesting for reminding airlines to strictly enforce the one hand bag per passenger rule, which is a two decade old rule.

This comes on the back of long queues at security, especially at major airports, when the traffic peaked in November and December last year – also the festival season. The private airports, especially Delhi and Mumbai were at the receiving end. Delhi has been handling the bulk of the international traffic while nearly reaching pre-COVID levels on the domestic traffic front. Likewise, Mumbai had seen higher footfalls. Both airports had also resorted to closing one or more terminals to cut costs.

The primary reasons for complaints were for long lines at security or long wait times to clear immigration and customs. This makes it ironic, since the security, immigration and customs clearances are handled by central agencies dedicated to perform these duties and do not come under the ambit of an airport – be it a private one or one owned and operated by the state owned Airports Authority of India (AAI).

This is a multi-party issue involving security agencies, private and state owned airports and has multiple angles like shortage of staff, investment in technology or rather the lack of it and its impact on airlines, retail outlets, airports and in turn the passenger!

Revisiting the one handbag rule

The circular from the year 2000, clearly states that a passenger is allowed to carry one hand baggage and in addition to this, can carry Lady’s handbag, Overcoat or wrap, rug or blanket, camera or pair of binoculars, reasonable amount of reading material for the flight, umbrella or walking stick, infant’s feed if an infant in with you, a gift item purchased from a duty-free shop and a laptop.

In a nutshell, nothing changes to this. A passenger can indeed carry one handbag plus any of what is listed above as per the circular. Then the real question is what prompted the circular? The answer to that is congestion. Security forces have observed that people are coming in with more than one hand bag and this is leading to longer clearance times at security.

But as security agencies came under pressure and as a result led to a reminder about the circular! 

Challenges for security, but why push the blame on airlines?

The CISF which is responsible for security at most airports in the country is short staffed (like most other agencies). This has been a reason for delay in opening up airports for 24 x 7 x 365 operations in the past and has also meant that airlines have had to change their plans of night parking at certain airports and/or provide late night and early morning flights. 

A quick look at how the security is done throws up some light. A passenger has to place all his/her belongings in a tray, along with the baggage and wait for his/her turn for frisking. The bag and belongings travel through the x-ray machine where another CISF personnel is identifying threats. A person is frisked and cleared in what is known as SHA (Security Hold Area). If something suspicious or an item which needs higher scrutiny is found in the baggage, the bag is kept aside, the owner is found and asked for details. At times, the luggage is sent back to the X-ray machine. More often than not, when this is happening – the X-ray machine has come to a halt with the entire CISF team dedicated to that machine trying to handle the single baggage or case. This leads to a pile up and asynchronous rate of clearance between baggage and people.

While people are a responsibility of the CISF and lesser counters are manned at times due to shortage of staff, providing those counters and X-ray machines falls on the airport operator.

Airport Operator – roles & responsibilities

Many airports in the country – both private owned and public owned, have seen rapid expansion in the last few years. These temporary quick fix solutions to handle traffic have been driven by space available rather than a long term plan. This has meant that while the apron space, check-in counters and terminal space grew – the security area did not grow in accordance, leading to long lines to clear security.

However, the best of technology cannot be implemented overnight. Be it self service check-in, which has seen a decent footfall at few airports where it is implemented but still needs airlines to depute some staff or having full body scanners without the need to frisk. Airports are getting the User Development Fee (UDF) paid by each passenger and they need to invest that to ensure that customer experience is improved, not degraded.

Which bottlenecks are considered for allocating slots?

While almost all complaints are around entry lines, security lines, customs and immigration; none of these points are either benchmarked or considered while allocation of slots. One of the suggestions to change flight timings to avoid bunching – thus does not seem to make sense. 

Traditionally, airlines are allocated slots on the basis of 

  1. Runway capacity
    1. Hourly (called R60) / Half-hourly (R30)
    2. 10 min window (called R10) 
  2. Availability of bay to park the aircraft
  3. Availability of check-in counters

However, lately factors like throughput of CISF, Immigration, etc have been considered or these teams have been taken in confidence while slot allocation at major airports in the country. Yet is it not a foolproof method to ensure that the process will be seamless, because unlike aircraft arrival and departure – passengers do not come at a set time to clear security.

What could be the solutions?

A multi prong approach is necessary to tackle the on-going challenges. 

Manpower solutions

CISF is deployed from entry to the airport, entry point for passengers, departure security and air side. At a larger airport with multiple entry points for passengers – a higher deployment is needed. This could be done away with and handed over to either the staff of the airport or airline.

Technology like barcode scanners to validate the ticket and enter the terminal are the need of the hour.

Space solutions

Most security check areas are congested. Either a staggered security or multiple areas of security with technology to tell wait times and direct passengers to the right one – could be the way forward.

Technology Implementation

Faster x-ray machines, automated tray retrieval technology, and full body scanners are just some of the technologies available to speed up congestion at the security touchpoints.

Airlines like KLM have implemented AR (Augmented Reality) to check the size of the bag. A passenger can do this on their own without relying on airport or airline staff. 

What are the airlines doing and who are the winners and losers?

Airlines were quick to jump on the circular and use social media to disseminate information about the one-bag rule. The real question is enforcing it. In an era where web check-in is mandatory, a person can walk up to security without turning up at the airline counter. The airline will need additional manpower to check passengers’ pre-security – a costly affair in current times. 

In letter and spirit, the circular is towards ensuring clearance of baggage at security. However, airlines can interpret it in totality and restrict passengers from carrying additional hand baggage – in quantity and/or weight. This is likely to put a question mark for many passengers on buying at the retail outlets in the security hold area. These retail outlets have already had it bad during the pandemic and enforcement of this rule will mean that recovery is delayed. This also has an impact on the airport operator since retail – more often than not is on a revenue sharing model with the airport operator. For private operators, the non-aero revenue is a large chunk of revenue. 

But for airlines, it could well become a revenue stream – with allowing additional kilograms and pieces at a price. Especially, in current times when load factors are low and additional baggage space is available in the aircraft.

Tail Note

There are two schools of thought in airport design. One is where the passenger is quick to go from entry to boarding and has little distractions and another where the airport is designed as a retail store where there is ample time to explore, purchase and if not purchase then spend! In either of the thoughts, nobody envisions a bottleneck at security! 

In the larger interest of the aviation sector, it is time to join hands – passengers sticking to rules, airport operators facilitating technology with airlines and central government services working in tandem to ensure a faster service delivery for passengers! 

As for technology, we are not even looking at reinventing the wheel. Airlines might as well just look at global airlines and pick up the best ideas to make things work in India. Will it be IndiGo – which has traditionally invested well in technology or will it be Akasa – which has recently made claims of using technology to create a difference?

You can now order Network Thoughts baggage tags and/or book marks!

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