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United Airlines Tests RFID to Speed Baggage and Passenger Check-In

Working with Star Alliance, United is providing plastic RFID-enabled baggage tags to 1,000 of the company's most frequent flyers departing from Chicago's O'Hare International Airport.
By Claire Swedberg
Feb 06, 2009United Airlines—together with Star Alliance, a global association comprising 21 airlines that works to improve the flying experience of its members' passengers, and the Transportation Security Agency (TSA)—has begun testing an RFID system to speed baggage and passenger check-in for frequent flyers at Chicago's O'Hare International Airport. The airline alliance, which counts United as a member, is testing whether using radio frequency identification to identify passengers and their luggage could hasten the check-in process.

The proof-of-concept test was first discussed by the Star Alliance's Technology Innovation Board, which consists of alliance members and technology vendors, explains Aman Khan, the association's VP of information technology. The group agreed to test the use of RFID on baggage as a way to begin a process of eventually tagging airline baggage globally to reduce passenger check-in time, which currently averages three to 10 minutes, down to 30 seconds. At a later phase in the pilot, the group hopes to utilize the tags to track baggage, once it is checked in, to reduce the incidence of lost luggage. United agreed to test the system at O'Hare—one of its hubs—and the TSA is watching over the project to ensure that this speedier check-in process poses no security risk.

Aman Khan
"Our role is one of oversight," says Jon Allen, a TSA spokesperson, "to ensure security is not compromised during the check-in process."

The project includes technology evaluation, developing a concept as well as the establishing interfaces with the airline's back-office applications. United is providing plastic RFID-enabled baggage tags manufactured by Siemens to 1,000 of its most frequent Chicago flyers who have Premier Executives and 1K status (two levels within United's "Mileage Plus" frequent-flyer program). Each baggage tag contains an embedded passive UHF EPC Gen 2 RFID inlay encoded with a unique ID number, as well as the Mileage Plus number of the customer to which that tag has been issued. The Mileage Plus number is linked to the passenger's information and reservation data in the airline's back-end system. Systems integration was provided by Hewlett Packard (HP), with Cisco and Intel also contributing to the project.

During the test period—which began on Wednesday, Feb. 4, and will continue for approximately six weeks—participating customers about to embark on domestic trips departing from O'Hare will first log in to a Web site and print their boarding passes, either at home or at an airport self-service kiosk. When the passengers drop off their luggage at the United terminal, the airline's employees will use handheld RFID interrogators to read the RFID tags attached to the bags. The RFID inlay's ID number and Mileage Plus number encoded to each luggage tag are downloaded into the back-end system, and the bags are automatically checked in for the destination airport in the United system. During the check-in process, the passenger—who need not present any ID documents or a boarding pass—receives a receipt for the baggage on his or her mobile phone.

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