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Airline Interest in RFID on the Rise

There's a real need for better ways to track baggage, but most carriers are reluctant to commit to RFID.
By Bob Violino
Jul 13, 2003By Mary Catherine O’Connor

July 14, 2003 - The US Transportation Security Administration estimates that the airline industry in the United States will have to spend about $5 billion over the next five to 10 years to upgrade baggage screening systems to comply with laws passed after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. Airlines see RFID as one technology that can help them comply with the new regulations, but they aren't ready to commit just yet to deploying the technology.
A Matrics bag tag

The airline industry has been looking at the possibility of using RFID to track baggage for more than five years. Bags on a conveyor can be in any orientation, and currently readers are able to scan bar codes on baggage tags only 30 percent of the time, according to the FAA. RFID doesn't require line of sight, so it has the potential to dramatically improve the read rates.

Interest in RFID among airlines is clearly on the rise. Leigh Fisher Associates, an airport management consulting firm, initially invited 20 individuals to an RFID symposium held last week at a hotel near San Francisco International Airport. But word got around, nearly 100 individuals attended, including representatives from airlines, airports, and RFID vendors, as well as from IBM, Boeing and other companies connected to the airlines.

The attendees seemed convinced that RFID tags could greatly improve baggage-handling capabilities. But participants concluded that until the price of the tags come down to 5 cents, the cost of implementing the technology is too high to make it economically viable.

"The consensus is that it’s not a matter of ‘if,’ but ‘when,’" concluded Mark Lunsford, a principal at Leigh Fisher, which hosted the day-and-a-half event, along with United Airlines.

The group took a tour of a pilot program at the San Francisco airport. The pilot, set to launch this week, uses RFID tags to identify the baggage of high-risk passengers so they can be screened using bomb-detection equipment. An initial RFID project was halted last year, partly so the airport could upgrade to an RFID system using 915 MHz tags and readers, which provide longer read range than 13.56 MHz tags.

If successful, the new system would not only improve safety by ensuring that high-risk bags are screened; it would also reduce labor costs by eliminating the need to have security staff hand-search bags in the terminal. A live rollout could take place in the international terminal this fall.

Speakers gave an overview of pilot programs at Boston’s Logan Airport and Jacksonville, Florida. Delta Air Lines is participating in the Jacksonville test, which tracks luggage in transit to Delta's hub in Atlanta (see Delta Takes RFID under Its Wing).

Funded in part by the Transportation Security Administration (TSA), these pilots will assess the use of RFID tags in baggage tracking for security screening. Before 9/11, bags had to accompany a passenger on all international flights. The US Aviation and Transportation Security Act now requires that all bags be associated with a passenger on US domestic flights as well.

Beyond the security concerns, airlines are looking at RFID's ability to improve baggage sorting and tracking and to streamline check-in systems. RFID tags could also be used in cargo and mail tracking, as well as to identify passengers enrolled in frequent-flier programs.

Airline executives attending the symposium seemed excited by the potential, but they said use of RFID is being held back by the lack of industry-wide standards, by the evolving nature of the technology, and by reports that the technology doesn't always perform up to needed standards. The group heard that RFID projects at Logan and San Francisco airport were abandoned because the technology was either unreliable or not significantly better than current systems. By many estimates, large-scale implementation of RFID is still two to three years away.

Interest in RFID is growing in part because the Auto ID Center has been promoting a simple tag that carries only a serial number to identify the item and could cost as little as 5 cents, when manufactured in large volumes. The price appeals to some in the airline industry. Others believe the airlines need tags with read-write memory that can store information about a particular piece of luggage, such as its destination and status.

When asked how this issue would be resolved, Daniel Engles, director of protocols for the Auto-ID Center, said that users would have to establish the standards. He indicated the market would choose technology that met its needs at the lowest cost.

Some airports are already deploying RFID technology to track bags. But instead of putting a disposable tag on each bag, they are tagging reusable plastic totes used to move bags around inside the airport. Brussels' Zaventem Airport and at Stockholm's Arland Airport are set to go live with such systems this fall (see EU Airports Send Bar Codes Packing). Others airports remain in a holding pattern.

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