IATA Mandates RFID Use on Baggage for Airlines, Airports

By Claire Swedberg

After more than a decade of study and recommendations, the International Air Transport Association has voted to require the use of UHF RFID on air-travel baggage to prevent the mishandling of bags.

The International Air Transport Association (IATA) has adopted a resolution supporting the global deployment of RFID tracking for checked airline baggage. The resolution serves as the latest step toward global baggage tracking with UHF RFID tags on passengers' luggage. The group voted at the 75th Annual General Meeting, held earlier this month in Seoul, South Korea.

The transition to radio frequency identification has been a wide-scale collaboration between all stakeholders across the baggage industry, including airports, airlines, luggage handlers and technology providers. IATA says it plans to work with airlines and airports to bring RFID to 80 percent of baggage checked for air travel throughout the next three years. This means that the implementation of RFID reader infrastructure needs to be deployed in at least 74 airports.

The vote was unanimous to adopt the resolution, along with the implementation of baggage messaging standards, to more accurately track passengers' baggage across key points—when the luggage passes through reader portals—throughout a traveler's journey. The resolution follows a decade-long process of research and recommendations, including specifications for how RFID should be employed.

IATA began examining RFID technology in 2005 as a tool to reduce baggage mishandling by airlines and airports. Three years later, the association started conducting a Baggage Improvement Program that led to a reduction of luggage mishandling of more than 70 percent by 2012, says Andrew Price, the head of global baggage operations for IATA's Airport, Passenger, Cargo, Security (APCS) division.

From 2013 to 2017, the baggage mishandling rate dropped further, in part due to messaging improvements. This was followed by the introduction of IATA Resolution 753 for the tracking of luggage, which became effective in June 2018. "While 80 percent of airlines have an implementation plan for IATA Resolution 753," Price says, "much remains to be done for full implementation to be achieved." Thus far, RFID has been adopted by a few airlines and airports, in some cases as pilot projects.

Recently, Delta "transitioned to RFID hands-free scanning technology at 84 of our largest domestic stations," says Gareth Joyce, Delta's senior VP of airport customer service and cargo president. These locations, he says, account for more than 85 percent of the bags flying in the Delta system.

In fact, since Delta launched RFID bag tags in 2016, the airline has collected more than 2 billion tracking points per year. "In so doing, we've been able to make adjustments and improvements to continue building up accuracy to where 99.9 percent of bags are now being accurately scanned and tracked."

RFID provides an automated approach that is faster and more accurate than barcode scans, Price reports. When RFID tags, applied to baggage, are read at airports before and after each flight, the bags can be identified and tracked without the need for human intervention.

For IATA, Price says, "There are concerns that without such a technology, millions of bags a year will continue to be mishandled, particularly during the transfer process when passengers connect through an airport from one flight to another." IATA's Recommended Practice (RP) 1740c provides RFID specifications for interline baggage, which was revised in 2018 to reflect the latest developments in RFID technology, and to include a set of tests to ensure global performance standards are met.

The RP indicates that passive Class 1 Gen 2 UHF RFID is the frequency to be used by the aviation industry. Because it is passive, the technology only sends information when it comes within range of a reader, when it detects an interrogation signal from that reader and when the signal is low in energy. Plus, since the tag is passive, it cannot interfere with aircraft systems while baggage moves through an airport or is in an airplane's baggage hold.

In 2018, IATA assessed whether the air-transportation industry was ready for RFID. It found that technology providers, airlines and airports could handle the transition, and that RFID tags could be provided at the scale required. "A global development plan showed the ability for the supply chain to provide sufficient baggage labels," Price states, "based on conversations with silicon manufacturers, inlay providers and label converters."

Additionally, IATA conducted a survey of airports in cooperation with Airports Council International (ACI), a non-profit organization representing the world's airports, at the end of last year. The two organizations found that airports are ready to implement RFID for baggage tracking. In fact, 70 percent of the airports surveyed were already considering RFID implementations, while 52 percent were working on a business case. By reading RFID tags at their facilities, Price explains, airports will be able to collect and manage analytic data for the purpose of operational planning

The timing is good for the resolution, IATA determined, given the increasing volume of luggage and passengers traveling by air. Passenger numbers are expected to double within the next 20 years, Price says, adding more strain to existing baggage-handling systems. "Consequently," he states, "improving baggage-handling operations is paramount to ensuring that the industry is ready to cope" with the anticipated growth.

Under this resolution, Price says, airlines are committed to transitioning from barcode baggage labels to labels with RFID inlays. Additionally, the airlines are dedicated to using RFID data to identify mishandled bags, and to enact processes that will prevent mishandling, together with airports and ground-handling personnel. The resolution calls for airports to rapidly incorporate RFID reader infrastructure so that those tags can be read after they are applied to bags when passengers check them at an airport.

Partnerships with stakeholders will be an important part of the resolution, Price notes, adding that IATA has worked closely with airlines and airports to develop this resolution. Before the AGM resolution on RFID use for baggage was presented at the general meeting, it was proposed and reviewed, with changes approved at the Airport Services Committee (ASC) in March of this year. The resolution was then reviewed by ACI and the IATA Travel Board in April.

"Over the past weeks, stakeholder engagement was also conducted with all the airlines sitting at the board," Price states, at which time IATA's board asked for the airlines' position on RFID. "The industry is already moving, with some airlines already planning their RFID implementation." In addition to Delta having tracked baggage via RFID since 2016, the Chinese government has issued an advisory regarding RFID for all airports handling more than 10 million passengers, effective at the end of this year.

Airlines that have not adopted RFID programs or begun piloting the technology will need to first familiarize themselves with the RFID specifications, as well as with the RFID implementation guide available at IATA's website. "In general, airlines can assess what their gaps are today when it comes to collecting and exchanging baggage tracking data," Price says. "Based on that, they could choose a route or pick a use case to start trialing and planning their implementations."

IATA indicates that it intends to assist and drive implementation. The industry group has published an RFID roadmap that provides an overview of the activities it plans to undertake as part of the RFID project throughout the next four years. Airports can evaluate how baggage tracking is already being accomplished at their facilities, and then set a path with airlines to collect requirements and conduct requests for proposals. IATA recommends that airports and airlines alike use the resources IATA makes available online, and that they attend the RFID webinars and workshops being conducted in various regions.

Some airports are already developing RFID business cases, conducting pilots or rolling out implementations, and IATA will provide airport visits and implementation plan reviews. The RFID adoption activities are driven by four main pillars, the organization reports: general awareness and education about RFID tailored to baggage operations, engaging and aligning all key stakeholders involved, developing tools and materials to support the global rollout, and monitoring deployment over the long term.

Ultimately, IATA predicts, the value for the industry will be in better, more accurate baggage tracking and greater efficiency in baggage handling (see Airline Industry Study Is Upbeat About RFID-Based Baggage Tracking). The group says RFID alone reduces the mishandling of baggage by 25 percent, and that it can improve loading and offloading speeds, leading to fewer flight delays. It has also calculated that operational expenses around the use of RFID are less than those for barcode scanning, such as the cost of the scanning technology. Finally, the team determined that adopting RFID will result in read rates of more than 99 percent without the need for human intervention.

For passengers, Price says, "There is a need for confidence, consistency and quality in the data to be shared with passengers—and RFID can deliver passenger data needs." According to a 2019 baggage IT insights study conducted by air-transport IT company SITA, 4.36 billion travelers checked in more than 4.27 billion bags last year. The report found that the number of mishandled baggage increased by 2.2 percent between 2017 and 2018.

On the other hand, Delta intends to continue increasing its baggage-handling accuracy with continued RFID technology use. "Delta is a strong believer in the power of investing in RFID technology and working to continuously improve," Joyce says. "We've seen firsthand that when RFID bag tags are coupled with reliable scanning technology, customers are the ultimate benefactor." This year's RFID Journal LIVE! conference and exhibition, held in April, hosted an Airline Baggage-Tracking Workshop to support RFID adoption plans by airlines and airports.