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Airport Says Payback Is in the Bag

When its RFID luggage-handling system goes online in January, the Hong Kong Airport expects to lower labor costs, increase capacity and improve security.
By Jonathan Collins
Dec 13, 2004Hong Kong International is one of the busiest airports in the world, handling approximately 35 million passengers each year. In June, Airport Authority Hong Kong (AAHK), which operates Hong Kong International, announced it was set to build the largest single RFID network in Asia and that the network would be launched in January 2005.

The RFID system installed along conveyors doesn't require line of sight

The airport is not only a popular destination but also a major hub for international travelers changing planes. About 40 percent of the 17 million luggage items that the airport handles each year belong to passengers who arrive by plane and transfer to another flight. And as more and more Chinese travel abroad, those figures are expected to grow significantly.

Currently, to process all that luggage and make sure it gets to the proper plane on time, the airport has depended on a system that requires a bar-coded and human-readable label attached to each piece luggage as it is checked in. But during the past six months, AAHK has been busy adding RFID to its baggage-handling system.

"With RFID technology, we saw an opportunity to utilize the technology to improve security and operational efficiency. We expect to get improved automatic baggage reconciliation functions and better read rates," says Wong Yiu-fai, head of technical services and procurement at AAHK.

The airport's existing bar code-based system was designed to automate the sorting and delivery of each piece of luggage to the correct plane. However, because bar code scanners need to have a clear line of sight to the labels in order to read them, not every label can be successfully scanned. Those that cannot are conveyed to a separate area where workers use handheld readers to manually scan each bag's bar code. Later on, baggage handlers check by eye that each item is being loaded correctly into the large baggage carriers that are in turn loaded onto planes.

The AAHK is investing more than $13 million in deploying and operating its RFID network—a figure that includes all its tags for the next five years. The AAHK says it is paying around 20 cents each for its tags.

Deploying RFID will enable the airport to track every piece of luggage as it moves through the airport, streamline its operations and increase its capacity to handle more passengers and flights. In addition, by using RFID to automate its existing manual bar code-based operations, the AAHK expects to see savings from reduced labor costs.

"It would be difficult to quantify tangible savings for this project at this stage," says Wong. "However, we see the benefit of maximizing the existing baggage-handling capacity with a much higher read rate by using the RFID technology in comparison with the existing bar code system. In addition, the new technology will enhance our baggage security in the future by encoding information into the tag."

Readers installed at various nodes within the airport, including baggage carousels and conveyors, will detect each item of luggage as it enters the system—from passenger check-in or transfer flight through delivery to the plane.

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