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Virgin Atlantic Finds Value in RFID

The airline says it learned valuable lessons from its part-tagging pilot project and intends to expand the system to other airports.
By Claire Swedberg
May 09, 2006Having concluded what it describes as a successful RFID pilot, Virgin Atlantic Airways has begun using RFID to help track aircraft parts throughout its facility at Heathrow Airport. While the airline is receiving tagged parts from two of its largest suppliers, Boeing and Airbus, it says it will continue to accept untagged parts from smaller companies, as well. In addition, the airline intends to expand the system to other airports.

Mark Butler, the company's strategic program manager, described the pilot at the RFID Journal LIVE! conference, held last week in Las Vegas. According to Butler, the eight-month pilot, completed in February, proved that an RFID system can improve the servicing of Virgin's aircraft by making the process of locating and replacing airplane parts more efficient.

The airline had been seeking an automated solution to the cost of tracking the replacement parts it receives, stores and installs on its airplanes. The cost of inefficiency can be high for airline companies, Butler said, noting that Virgin pays approximately $600 a minute when an aircraft is delayed. Often, these delays occur when the airline is unable to retrieve parts from storage quickly.

Another incentive to using an RFID technology solution is the fact that Boeing and Airbus are both adopting RFID technology to tag parts for the planes they make. Thanks to this RFID adoption, Virgin and the two suppliers can track parts starting with the suppliers' warehouse, from which they are shipped, and extending all the way to the plane on which they are installed.

Virgin chose to run a pilot rather than immediately launch an RFID solution, Butler said, because a pilot reduces the risk of spending money on technology that does not work or does not integrate with the company's internal software system.

"We had lots of unanswered questions related to the technology and how it worked, and we wanted to experience it," Butler said. The pilot ultimately enabled the airline to "get good experience with relatively low expenditures."

The pilot started in June 2005 and involved tagging all of Virgin's replaceable parts at Heathrow. During that time, Virgin used three Symbol MC900G readers—one at the warehouse's entrance, one at its shelving area and one at the exit—plus a Printronix SL900 EPC Class 1 and Gen 2-compliant RFID label printer-encoder. The company integrated the RFID system with its Oracle Database software and itsUltramain aviation maintenance and parts-inventory system, and also provided automated tag printing to work in line with Virgin's existing internal maintenance process (see Virgin Uses RFID for Plane Parts).

The objective was to demonstrate potential savings, improve the visibility of critical parts, provide a measurement of the system's potential impact, improve service provided by the warehouse and increase the airline's understanding of how it and the suppliers could together grow airplane-part visibility in the supply chain.

When a component arrived at the Virgin facility during the pilot, an RFID label was encoded and applied to the component. The label was then read each time the part moved—for example, to a new storage area—or placed on an aircraft. Butler described a few learning experiences, including finding that the harsh environment, with a large amount of metal, "created lots of interesting results in scanning."

"We found it was better to attach the tag inside plastic covers," he said. "That gave us better read rates." The pilot also used handheld readers to locate and identify items by interrogating tags on the item containers or bins.
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