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Emirates RFID Bag-Tracking Pilot Takes Off

The airline is using EPC RFID tags to track luggage on flights to and from airports in Dubai, London and Hong Kong, which recently RFID-enabled all its check-in counters.
By Mary Catherine O'Connor
Feb 19, 2008Emirates Airline has begun a six-month technology trial to test the use of RFID to improve the tracking of checked luggage. Instead of using the standard, bar-coded ID tags that airlines normally employ to identify baggage, Emirates is placing tags with embedded UHF EPC Gen 2 inlays onto each checked bag on five daily flights between London's Heathrow Airport and Dubai International Airport. Bags checked onto a daily Emirates flight to and from Hong Kong International Airport will also be tagged.

The airline hopes using RFID combined with automated bag sortation equipment will increase the amount of luggage it can accurately identify and sort, thereby decreasing the number of bags that fail to reach their destination on time. Emirates is also using a secure database to enable personnel at each airport to follow the tagged bags' movements from the point of intake to the time they are loaded onto a plane. The airline is investing more than a half million dollars in the six-month project and expects to place RFID-enabled tags on approximately half a million bags.

To track the bags from the point of departure to the point of arrival, RFID interrogators read the unique ID from the inlays in each luggage tag—which are otherwise identical to conventional tags and include a bar code—as the bags are moved through a number of chokepoints within each airport. Conventionally, bar-code scanners are employed to identify the tags, but because bar-code technology requires a clear line of sight between the scanner and a printed bar code, the read is often missed due to the orientation of the label to the scanner. The typical successful read rate of baggage bar codes is roughly 85 percent, says Pankaj Shukla, director of RFID business development for Motorola, whose RFID interrogators are being used in Heathrow Airport as part of the pilot program.

Past trials of RFID technology in baggage handling applications, Shukla says, show the percentage of successful read rates to range from the low 90s up to 99. Bags that aren't automatically identified through their bar code or RFID number are diverted and manually handled, thus increasing the likelihood that a bag will be delayed and not loaded onto the same flight as its owner. According to the International Air Transport Association (IATA), a trade group composed of airlines around the globe, the annual cost of mishandled baggage to the industry is more than $3 billion.

An IATA report published in 2007, however, maintains that RFID will not completely eliminate late luggage and its associated costs. According to the report, problems in reading the bar-code tags on luggage are responsible for only 9.7 percent of all mishandled luggage across the industry. "There are many reasons for the mishandling of baggage," the report indicates, "and not all of these may be addressed with RFID."

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