IATA Event Suggests Airlines Are Embracing RFID

By Mark Roberti

As more parts are tagged on Airbus and Boeing planes, carriers are beginning to find value in using the technology for their own purposes.

A few weeks ago, I attended the RFID & Paperless Aircraft Technical Operations Conference (2015),
hosted by the International Air Transport Association (IATA). Day one focused on paperless aircraft technical operations, while day two concentrated on radio frequency identification.

I spoke at the same event last year, which was held at Airbus' facilities, in Toulouse, France. It felt to me like there was more interest in RFID now. The statistics seem to bear out my subjective impression. More than 100 people attended day two this time, compared to 65 last year. And there were 21 airlines represented this year, versus 15 in 2014.

Boeing and Airbus each offered updates on their projects (see Airbus Enters New Phase of RFID Usage, Digitalization and Boeing Program Automates Aircraft Maintenance Tasks). There were also presentations by Jetstar Airways (about how it is using RFID to track cabin safety equipment), Swiss International Air Lines (regarding its use of RFID to improve logistics), Delta Airlines (offering an update on its progress tagging life vests and oxygen containers on its existing fleet—see RFID Reduces Oxygen-Generator Waste for Delta Air Lines), and TAP Portugal and KLM Royal Dutch Airlines (both of which are using RFID in their maintenance operations—see Portuguese Airline TAPs Into RFID and Air France-KLM Embarks on RFID Luggage-Tag Trial). Honeywell and Rockwell Collins, which supply parts and handle maintenance for airlines, also discussed their RFID projects (see Honeywell Aerospace Tags Parts for Airbus and Rockwell Collins Explores Ways to Benefit From RFID).

The airlines in attendance seemed keen to hear how they could use tags being placed on seats, life vests and other airplane parts for their own benefit. The presentations also opened up people's eyes to how RFID could be used within their own maintenance operations to lower costs, improve efficiencies and reduce the incidence of manual errors.

I spoke to a few airline attendees. "We have funding and plan to start a pilot early next year," one told me. "We know we should be doing something with RFID," another said, "so we are here to learn." I saw attendees approaching speakers to seek advice, whereas at last year's event, I felt that most visitors went because their bosses had sent them to find out what other airlines were doing.

On day three of the conference, the group visited Delta's facility at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport. A Delta representative escorted us to a hangar, where we took turns walking through a plane with a handheld reader. We were able to read the tags on all life vests and oxygen canisters in the plane within a minute or so. It was amazing to see how well the tags could be interrogated. We didn't have to wave the handheld around—we merely walked down the aisle and it picked up all of the tags. (By the way, one of the planes used as Air Force One was in a secure area of the hangar, which was pretty cool.)

It appears to me that the ground has been laid for the widespread adoption of RFID in the airline industry. Airbus has been installing tagged items on its new aircraft, and Boeing is following suit. Airlines are beginning to realize these tags can be used to reduce the amount of time workers spend checking for life vests and expired oxygen canisters on planes (which need to be checked before each flight takes off).

This initial application is accomplishing what the tracking of jeans did for retailers. It is a quick and easy way to see the big benefits that RFID can deliver, and is leading companies to look at what else it can do. Those who started with tracking life vests are now moving on to other applications within the maintenance area. It's only a matter of time before RFID is widely used in the airline industry to identify and track parts and manage their maintenance.

Mark Roberti is the founder and editor of RFID Journal. If you would like to comment on this article, click on the link below. To read more of Mark's opinions, visit the RFID Journal Blog, the Editor's Note archive or RFID Connect.