From the moment you surrender your luggage at check-in, most of the heavy lifting is done by machines. Bags travel by conveyor belt, then get routed to the right gate, says Rick Stoess, of Mason, Ohio–based Intelligrated, which has manufactured conveyor and sortation systems used at airports. In small airports, the sorting is done by hand, but in larger ones, scanners read the bag’s bar code, and a device sweeps it into the correct lane. Often, automatic security screening gets integrated into this labyrinth. The primary task for handlers: transferring bags onto the plane, either by cart or aluminum container.
Radio-frequency identification could reduce human involvement even further. According to Pankaj Shukla, director of RFID business development for Motorola, which acquired a company that helped pioneer the technology, RFID works by inlaying a microchip and an antenna inside a tag, increasing the system’s accuracy to nearly 100 percent. But, says Shukla, while paper tags cost around 4 cents each, RFID tags run in the midteens. So don’t expect the industry to make the expensive upgrade soon. McCarran International in Las Vegas is the only American airport using RFID fully.