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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
AAHK isn't the first airport to turn to RFID to help automate baggage handling, but the success of the project could also be a major step in driving deployment at other airports, both in Asia and around the world. According to AAHK, the tags it will apply could be used by other airports, too.

RFID tags are integrated with standard baggage labels

"It is important for other airports to adopt the same technology in order to enhance the same service level to all passengers, in particular security service, and the use of the tag," says Wong. "We will work with airlines and the industries concerned to standardize on one type of RF technology, as we see the need to drive down cost by wide application in the aviation and logistics industries," says Wong.

"AAHK does not want to be an island. It wants to connect other airports to leverage full benefit," says Larry Blue, VP and general manager of the RFID tag business at Symbol Technologies, which says it is already in discussions with a dozen airports in Asia eager to implement this new system.

The system at AAHK will initially work alongside its existing luggage management system that uses bar-coded labels. One key aspect of deploying RFID is to improve on the accuracy of the existing luggage management system. "We would expect at least 99 percent read rates [from the RFID system], says Wong.

The inability to read bar code labels without a clear line of sight has not only meant a lower read rate than RFID will deliver, but also does not allow for an item's location to be pinpointed either in a storage area or inside one of the unit load devices (ULDs)—the large containers that hold the luggage ready to board a plane.

In deploying RFID, Airport Authority Hong Kong issued a competitive tender where companies were given 45 days to design and deploy trial RFID networks. RFID offerings from a number of vendors were compared in performance testing at the airport's facilities. The winners of the process were a group of companies led by RFID hardware specialists Matrics (since acquired by Symbol Technologies), Matrics' strategic partner, Marubeni Corp., which will be providing systems installation and support services, and EMSD Corp., which is the airport's electrical, and mechanical systems service provider (see Hong Kong's Airport to Tag Bags). The middleware to connect the RFID network with the airport's existing baggage-handling system is being developed by airline IT specialists SITA. Lyngsoe Systems, the Danish company that supplied the control system for the original bar code-based sortation system, was hired to adapt the control system for RFID.

According to Symbol, its equipment was chosen after achieving very close to 100 percent accuracy during the trials. Symbol will supply 120 of its AR 400 read-write readers as well as its Class 0+ dual-dipole read-write tags as part of a contract is between Airport Authority Hong Kong and the Symbol-Marubeni team. The project is expected to buy and use around 80 million tags during the next five years. By the end of this year, AAHK will have used already received and used 2.2 million Symbol Class 0+ tags.

Although the system is not set to go live until January 2005, all the fixed RFID hardware for the system has already been deployed. In September, the airport ran its first end-to-end demonstrations of the system for the airport's airlines, which pay the AAHK for handling their passengers' baggage.

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