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Helping Bags Make Their Flights

RFID promises to improve baggage service and save airlines millions of dollars. Here's what’s being done to help make that a reality.
By Andrew Price
Oct 10, 2005RFID is nothing new. The technology has been around for many years, first surfacing in 1945. Even in the world of aviation, we've been playing with the idea of an RFID baggage tag for 15 years. The International Air Transport Association (IATA) is driving efforts to move forward the use of RFID for baggage management, as part of its 'Simplifying the Business' program—an industry-wide initiative designed to simplify travel and reduce annual industry costs by $6.5 billion. RFID alone would generate $800 million of those savings, while also significantly improving baggage service.

What has given this application such appeal, and why do passengers still suffer baggage delays when the problem has been examined for so long? There have been many trials of RFID technology in the aviation world, usually run by the airlines’ IT departments. Naturally, this has led to a technology focus. When the operations side of businesses has subsequently looked at RFID, however, concern about the cost has put a halt to implementation.

Although IATA launched its current RFID project in 2004, the association first became involved in RFID through the IATA Baggage Working Group in 1997. This group is comprised of experts well versed in the problems airlines and airports face when it comes to baggage handling. It was clear that in order for RFID to be successfully deployed, a common standard between airlines would be required.

Standards and costs are two challengers IATA is used to dealing with. The first issue the working group confronted was deciding upon a frequency, between the then-available 125 KHz and 13.56 MHz tags. To that end, more trials were conducted. Of course, RFID was changing nearly as rapidly then as it is now, and soon the 2.45 GHz tags arrived on the scene. The first frequency, chosen in 1999, was 13.56 MHz, based on successful trial results undertaken the previous year. There were immediate issues in the United States, where it was impossible to use the frequency at the necessary power level to achieve a sensible read range. At the same time, the preferred frequency in the United States—2.45 GHz—was suffering exactly the same issues in Europe.

The implementation of RFID was stalled, as there was no point in having a non-global system in the airline industry. At the same time, the cost of RFID baggage labels was still prohibitive. Consequently, rather than exploring how to use RFID, airlines revisited the question, 'Why do bags miss flights?'

So, why do bags miss flights?

Basically, it comes down to the following four scenarios:
• The bag arrives too early, then is placed in storage and forgotten.
• The bag arrives too late and cannot be processed in time.
• The bag is delayed due to processing through security or other steps.
• The baggage-handling system breaks down and cannot deliver the bag to the departing aircraft.

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