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Baggage handling at Heathrow is a complex operation with bags processed by several parties.

The airline or its handling agent is responsible for inputting bags into the baggage system at check-in; screening bags; collecting security screened bags and loading them on to aircraft; and retrieving bags from arriving aircraft and loading them onto baggage reclaim belts in the terminals.

Heathrow is responsible for providing and operating the sophisticated mechanical baggage system, which transports, security screens and sorts the bags.

The airport has an automated baggage handling system which is comprised of over 30 miles of conveyors, two miles of tunnels and features the latest technology to safely sort and screen over 150,000 departing bags a day.

It is a resilient system with multiple inbuilt contingencies, and provides the best possible service to passengers.

The Heathrow baggage system has three main roles:

  • To deliver bags from check-in to the departure gates.
  • To deliver bags from one gate to another during transfers.
  • To deliver bags to arriving passengers in the baggage reclaim area.

Baggage system transformation

We have ambitious plans to transform Heathrow and over the next few years the airport will be completely refurbished or rebuilt.

This includes a major investment in Heathrow's baggage system and the construction of a new automated baggage link to connect Terminals 1, 3 and 5.

Once complete, Heathrow's baggage system will connect all of Heathrow's terminals, creating the world's largest fully integrated baggage system.

By 2014 the airport will operate a single baggage system, capable of handling 110 million bags a year.

Work is already underway to replace Terminal 3's baggage system and refurbish the systems in Terminal 1 and 4 with the latest technology.

New systems will also be installed at Terminal 5C, which is currently under construction and at Terminal 2A, which will replace Terminals 1 and 2 and the Queens building.

The construction of a baggage tunnel, running under the airfield is at the heart of the baggage improvement plans. The 1.8km-long baggage tunnel will connect Terminal 5 and Terminal 3.

This will then be continued so that it eventually links Terminal 2A. The existing baggage tunnel between Terminal 4 and Terminal 1, built in 1997 will be completely overhauled.

Baggage quick facts

  • 30 miles of conveyors.
  • 4.3 million bags a month processed.
  • Approx 52.8 million bags a year processed.
  • 2,500 metres of tunnels (increasing to 4,500 metres when the T5-T3-T1 Connectivity Project is delivered).
  • 44 baggage reclaim belts.
  • 16 baggage handling agents.

The journey of a bag at Heathrow


  • At check-in, the airline agent prints a luggage tag and attaches it to the bag. This contains a unique barcode and a ten-digit number which has details of the bag's final destination and route.
  • The bag enters the Heathrow baggage system and is read by a barcode scanner and automatically routed through the airport's network of conveyors and junctions to a collection chute for processing by airline baggage handling staff.
  • The bag passes through x-ray machines and other security devices to ensure it is screened to the highest possible standard.
  • At the collection chute, a baggage handler, provided by the airlines, scans the bag's barcode tag to create a record of the bag's location and reconciles each item of luggage with the passenger manifest for security purposes.
  • The handler then loads bags on to carts, which are driven out to the aircraft to load them into the hold.

Transferring bags

  • Transfer bags are unloaded from the aircraft by airline baggage handlers and placed in the Heathrow baggage system, where they are scanned, screened and sorted for reloading on to the ongoing flight.
  • Bags transferring between Terminals 1 and 4 are automatically transported through a 1,500 metre underground baggage tunnel.
  • Bags travelling between the other terminals are transported through the airside network of roads and tunnels.

Arriving bags

  • Bags arriving at Heathrow are unloaded from the aircraft by the airline baggage handling agent and transported to the terminal building where they are placed on the baggage reclaim belts.
  • Each baggage hall has numerous baggage belts, which act as contingency when belts are being serviced.

Terminal 5 baggage system

  • The Terminal 5 baggage system is the biggest, single-terminal baggage handling system in Europe. It is made up of two complementary systems, a main baggage handling system overlaid with a fast track system.
  • Airline staff enter bags into the system at check-in desks, which feed a pair of tilt-tray sorters that deliver bags to the baggage hall. They are transferred to containers by airline baggage staff and driven to the aircraft for manual loading.
  • A fast-track underground system links the main terminal with its satellites conveying time-critical bags to individual heads of stands, most of which have a delivery point close to the rear of the aircraft.
  • Terminal 5 has an automated system, located in the basement, which can store up to 4,000 early bags. The robotically controlled system holds bags that are checked in three hours prior to a departure and are held until called out for flight make-up, at which point they are transferred to the main baggage hall.
  • Incoming baggage terminating at Heathrow is taken to the baggage hall by airline handlers and loaded on to reclaim belts.

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