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Air Cargo and RFID

Radio frequency identification is a smart way to keep freight moving forward.
By Alexander C.H. Skorna and André Richter
Sep 10, 2007Radio frequency identification technology is becoming increasingly common in our everyday life. Applications for better identification of passport owners, or simple transport payments such as collecting road and bridge tolls and fares for mass transportation, show only a small sampling of how RFID is being deployed. In fact, RFID technology has been implemented in some sectors for more than 10 years now. The same cannot be said about the air-cargo business, however; aside from some local solutions and smaller pilot projects for testing purposes, no major applications yet exist in that arena.

The demand for air cargo over the next 20 years is expected to grow at about 6 percent annually, according to studies of the two largest aircraft manufacturers, Airbus and Boeing (Airbus: Global Market Forecast 2004-2005; Boeing: World Air Cargo Forecast 2004-2005). As a result, the cargo market is now being taken more seriously, even by traditional passenger airlines with no special cargo planes. One such airline, Virgin Atlantic, currently chooses its aircraft based on the payload capacity for new destinations in Africa and the Asia-Pacific Rim.

Alexander C.H. Skorna
Strong market growth generates higher competition pressure, and new cost-benefit-sharing models and efficient logistics procedures are required to survive in such an environment. One example is the linkage of cargo airlines within such strategic alliances as WOW and SkyTeam Cargo. Overall, airlines and freight forwarders are dealing with a higher business complexity and variance. RFID technology contributes considerably to handling these upcoming challenges.

Current RFID applications within the airline industry are primarily limited to baggage handling and identification. KLM/Air France implemented RFID-enabled baggage tags inside Amsterdam Airport. Cathay Pacific and Delta Airlines did the same, with great success, at airports in Beijing, Hong Kong and Jacksonville, Fla. (see Delta Plans U.S.-Wide RFID System).

So far, the read rates have all been above 99 percent. In Jacksonville, for instance, the read rates at bag belts and on belt loaders have been about 99.8 to 99.9 percent. Bar-code read rates on bags traveling down a conveyor in random orientation can be as low as 67 percent, according to several projects conducted at Germany's University of Karlsruhe, because bar-code labels can be torn, soiled or covered by luggage ID tags.

Due to high RFID chip prices, however, a full RFID-tagging of all goods transported by air is not yet affordable. One mid-term solution might be the mounting of RFID chips on airfreight containers known as unit load devices (ULDs). The analysis of a pilot project run by Air Canada Cargo in Toronto and Miami showed a 100 percent read rate, even under high volume and with a great diversity of cargo contents. The Montreal Convention regulates tightened liability laws for aircraft carriers in the case of proven damage; for carriers, it is now crucial to obtain additional information about conditions during transport.

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