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IATA Expects Big Savings for Airlines That Tag Trolleys

The airline trade group will soon start a trial using RFID to track the wheeled carts airlines employ to carry food and duty-free items on board aircraft.
By Rhea Wessel
Jun 21, 2007The International Air Transport Association (IATA), a trade group composed of airlines around the globe, will soon commence a pilot involving the use RFID to track trolleys that carry food and duty-free items on airplanes. The association calculates that by tagging the trolleys, the industry as a whole could save $470 million a year worldwide.

Based in Montreal, IATA has primarily been known in RFID circles for its role in helping the airline industry track luggage since the 1990s (see Helping Bags Make Their Flights). IATA launched the trolley study in 2004, then two years later assembled a task force comprised of airlines, caterers, regulators, galley-equipment suppliers, aircraft manufacturers and technology vendors, to identify how ID technology could bring about the most benefits.

Andrew Price, IATA
At the end of 2006, the association wrote a business case explaining how RFID could improve the logistics of in-flight catering and duty-free sales, and now it is winding up tests of various RFID technologies. In August, IATA will begin a trial involving 1,200 tagged trolleys and an as-yet-undisclosed European airline and caterer.

The IATA task force identified several trolley-management problems faced by airlines. Most carriers pay between $600 and $1,000 to purchase a trolley, using up to 50 per flight. Airlines rarely have an overview of where their trolleys are at any given time, and may have to haul them back and forth among aircraft, airports and kitchens to have the proper number of trolleys in the correct place at the right time (see Air Canada GETS Asset Tracking). What's more, when inventorying the trolleys and the meals within them, airline workers must count them manually.

The task force recognized that proactive maintenance of trolleys could extend their functional life, while effective ID technology could reduce food waste and make it easier for airlines to deliver special meals to passengers and have the right types and amounts of duty-free items available. After examining passive RFID tags—the only kind allowed on a plane—including HF, LF and UHF technologies, IATA determined that UHF passive RFID was the most promising for trolley use.

The trade group envisions many factors contributing to the savings it calculated for the industry. By tracking trolleys and their contents at many different points, airlines would lose fewer trolleys; maintain them better; shuttle them less frequently among kitchens, aircraft and airports; and waste fewer meals. According to Andrew Price, IATA's project manager for RFID, the potential RFID solution would include a permanent passive RFID tag on each trolley and each stowage unit, with a disposable tag on each meal tray and on bar and duty-free items.

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