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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
From the baggage hall, items move on the conveyor to 80 loading piers, where they are manually removed from the conveyor and loaded into the ULDs that will carry them to and onboard the plane. Readers on each of the loading piers read when an item is loaded into a ULD, which arrive at the pier in groups of six. The bar-coded ULDs are tracked and managed by the existing ULD management system and by connecting that information with the RFID reads of each bag as it is manually loaded into a ULD, the combined system can record exactly which bag goes into each ULD.

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For the initial trials, Symbol had designed a system where, during luggage loading, baggage to each ULD would be temporarily fitted with an antenna that was wired to a fixed reader. Because of concern over the potential damage to the antennas, however, the company has instead deployed fixed readers on scaffolds above the ULD for the final system.

The automated reading of the bags' RFID tags in the ULDS will replace manual bar code scans carried out in the existing system. That automated read means the RFID network can generate a manifest with the exact location of each bag. Should any bag have to be removed from a ULD before the plane can depart, that item can quickly be pinpointed and removed. With the original bar code system, all the items have had to be removed and scanned to find the correct bag. Savings in manual labor and time to resolve issues such as these, according to Wong, will help increase capacity at the airport.

Because of the huge amount of baggage that comes through the airport-many of which often have to be loaded and unloaded within 30 minutes-the airport uses an additional baggage-transfer facility located down on the tarmac. AAHK is adding RFID technology to this adjunct facility, too, replicating the read points on the conveyors and loading piers used in the airport's primary baggage-handling system.

Bags unloaded from ULDs in the remote transfer facility will be manually tagged and loaded onto a system consisting of single conveyor. The conveyor is fitted with Symbol readers, each reader having four antennas to provide full 360-degree coverage at each read point. As in the central baggage hall, the tags will be written to automatically with the same number found on the item's bar code tag as the bar codes are read. Any read failures will be identified, and an operator with a handheld device capable of scanning bar codes and reading and writing to RFID tags will ensure the RFID tag is written to correctly.

The remote transfer location has four piers, where trains consisting of three ULDs arrive. At the pier, a reader with an antenna over each ULD reads each bag's label to ensure that the bag goes in the correct ULD for the flight it should be on.

With its new RFID system already able to showcase how luggage can be tracked from arrival at the airport to delivery to the correct plane, AAHK is now looking to further deploy RFID into other areas of its operations. While completing the installation and testing of the RFID hardware and software remains AAHK's primary focus, the authority says that it can foresee RFID being used in its air cargo operations as well as embedded in passenger boarding passes.

"The extended use of RFID in air cargo operations and boarding passes would help lower the purchase price of the tags, which makes up the largest expense of any RFID deployment," says Wong.

While buying more tags can reduce the unit price for each tag, it would still raise the overall hardware costs of using RFID. Symbol, however, is convinced that AAHK's international connections and the other Asian airports' interest in similar deployments will lead to the sharing of tagging costs between airports. This will enable AAHK to yield even greater savings from deploying RFID in its baggage operations.

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