How Baggage Is Loaded Onto Aircraft

Have you ever wondered how your baggage gets transported on a flight? It is not something we often think about but it is a significant part of daily aircraft operations. This article takes a look at the different ways baggage is handled and stored on various aircraft types.

Hawaiian Airlines Boeing 767 Honolulu Airport Hawaii USA
Baggage is loaded into containers for storage on most widebody aircraft. Photo: Getty Images

Sorting bags with baggage handling systems

What happens to bags once they move away from the baggage drop or check-in area at the airport? The journey from check-in to the aircraft is handled at most large airports by a Baggage Handling System. Each piece of baggage is barcoded and then sorted into different areas, depending on the aircraft it is headed for, and whether it will make further connections on its journey.

The design and sophistication of these systems, of course, vary between airports. Some will fully automate the scanning and direction of bags, while others will be part manual. Many now incorporate baggage security screening into the process, and some have begun using RFID chips as well as barcodes to manage and track baggage. Japanese airline ANA has even trialed a fully autonomous baggage system, including cart delivery to the aircraft.

ANA, Nagoya Airport, Autonomous Baggage Trial
All Nippon Airways is testing out autonomous baggage tractors. Photo: ANA

However sophisticated the system, the ultimate objective is to prepare and deliver the bags ready to be loaded onto the correct aircraft.

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Bulk loaded – doing it manually

Bags are either loaded manually into the aircraft hold or are first sorted into containers. Manual, or bulk, loading is common on most narrowbody aircraft. Although some aircraft, including the A320, also have the option of specially designed smaller containers.

Baggage Handling
Loaded baggage manually into the hold is common on narrowbody aircraft. Photo: Arpingstone via Wikimedia

Bulk loading will usually involve bags being loaded from a luggage cart using a conveyor and then manually stored in the aircraft hold. There are often shelves and netting in place to help space out and secure bags, and on larger aircraft, the hold may be divided up to allow storage to be evenly spread. Just as passengers are often seated across the cabin for correct balance, luggage, and other cargo, needs to be distributed appropriately for safe aircraft operation.

A320 baggage hold
An A320 hold with netting to secure and distribute items. Photo: Dtom via Wikimedia

Container loaded

The alternative to manual bulk loading is to use containers. There are specially designed aluminum containers, known as Unit Load Devices (ULD), that are built to fit inside the aircraft hold. These are used on all widebody aircraft to hold both luggage and cargo.

Standard size ULD
Standard size ULDs are used for loading onto widebody aircraft. Photo: Getty Images

When using ULDs, they can be filled with luggage before the aircraft arrival, and then the units are loaded into the hold. This, of course, is faster and more efficient than bulk loading.

ULDs are designed to fit into the hold and lock into place. There are several different sizes in use for different aircraft. Many are interchangeable, allowing smooth transfer between aircraft, but may not be as efficient as loading the optimum sized container for that aircraft.

747 hold compartment
The 747 hold compartment. will fit several different sizes of container Photo: Dtom via Wikimedia

Some examples include:

  • The most common container is the LD3 – this can be used on all Airbus widebody aircraft, as well as the Boeing 747, 777, and 787.
  • The 747 can take a slightly wider LD1 container (same height and depth), but the LD3 is often used as it is more commonly available.
  • The 767 is designed to take smaller LD2 sized containers. It can also take an LD3 container, but it would be inefficient as it takes up the space that two LD2 containers would, but offering much less overall storage.

Some narrowbody aircraft can also be loaded using containers. The A320 family can take LD3-45 containers. These are standard-fitting LD3 containers but with a reduced height to fit the A320s smaller hold (they are 1.14 meters in height as opposed to 1.63 meters).

A ULD for an A320
A smaller LD3-45 ULD for an A320. The prefix ‘AKH’ identifies this. Photo: Klaus Schinzel via Wikimedia

Losing the bags

Baggage handling systems and baggage tagging are continually improving. And both bulk and container loading incorporate procedures and checks to ensure the correct bags are loaded and unloaded. Despite this, mistakes still occur, and bags go missing.

Simple Flying looked at the issue of lost bags previously. The odds of bags being lost are falling, with approximately 24.8 million a year being lost in 2019 compared to 46.9 million in 2007 (based on research by SITA), this still represents 1-3% of all bags being mishandled.

The biggest problem is caused in connections and transfers (accounting for 46% of losses), but failure to load onto the aircraft still accounts for 16%.

Ground handling and baggage loading is not a topic we often discuss on Simple Flying. Feel free to share any thoughts or comments you would like to add.