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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
Under the system being installed, all items of luggage that arrive at the airport either at check-in or transferred from incoming flights will be fitted the same bar code labels the airport now uses but also with the Symbol RFID labels, which measure 2 inches by 4 inches. The RFID tags will be attached either when the bar code labels are attached at the check-in desk or separately, as the bags arrive in the central baggage hall, where baggage that hasn't been cleared to be sent for loading on a plane yet is held. That decision has yet to be made by the AAHK, but the system currently adds RFID tags in the baggage hall. Either way, AAHK is confident that over time, it will replace bar codes in its system with RFID tags.

"Eventually, RFID will replace bar code tags, but the process will take three to five years," says Wong. "This may be a conservative estimate, but our major challenge is to convince the airlines to standardize their baggage tag length and the replacement of their existing bar code printer to a dual-mode [version] including RF at each of the check-in desks," says Wong.

At present, during demonstrations of the system, the RFID tagging has been carried out in the central baggage hall. After the RFID tag has been applied manually, they are placed back on the luggage-induction conveyor, where the bar code labels are read automatically and the 10-digit IATA (International Air Transport Association) bar code number is written to the RFID tags on the same piece of luggage.

Given the less than 100 percent read rate of the bar code labels, the new system ensures that if the bar code tag on an item of luggage isn't read properly during this stage, the bag will be diverted to an area where the bar code and the RFID tag attached to the luggage will be read and written to manually using handheld device that reads both bar codes and RFID tags. The airport will use a total of 166 handheld readers capable of scanning bar codes and reading and writing to RFID tags.

According to Symbol, there have been some issues in getting RFID reads from tags placed on some luggage items—primarily metal flight cases, where the metal can obstruct the signal between the readers and tags. To combat that, the staff has been trained to apply the RFID tags only to the handles of these items.

The tagged baggage is then replaced on the conveyor. Symbol says that 28 fixed read-write points have been deployed on these luggage-induction conveyors, with four antennas to provide full 360-degree coverage at each read point. Luggage then passes through one of eight inspection machines, which scan for explosives and other banned items. Another read of the tag is taken at the exit of the inspection area so that the baggage-management system knows which bags have been diverted for manual security examination and which have been cleared.

Luggage checked in at the airport is managed in two separate ways. Items that have been cleared for loading onto the plane are moved by conveyors to the loading area, where they are manually transferred to ULDs and taken directly to the plane. However, a small percentage of items need to be held in a central baggage hall because their flight isn't ready to start accepting baggage yet—most often because the passenger has checked in well ahead of the scheduled departure time. As these bags move through one of four large carousels-each fitted with two readers that can each scan two bags at a time-the system identifies which bags need to be removed and held.

The Symbol readers deployed at the carousels are built into what the company calls its aviation reader station-a 3-foot tall, 2-foot wide unit that combines the reader with a monitor screen and systems for audible and visible alarms as well as data collection capabilities. These carousels sort the baggage so that workers using handheld readers can correctly store items and make sure they are ready for delivery to a plane when the time comes to do so.

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