McCarran International Airport Expands Its RFID Baggage-Handling System

By Claire Swedberg

The Las Vegas airport's new Terminal 3 includes a Vanderlande solution with Motorola RFID readers and antennas, to track the screening and sortation of bags departing from the airport.


When the new Terminal 3 at McCarran International Airport, in Las Vegas—used for domestic and international flights—opened this summer, it included an RFID system for tracking every bag leaving the airport. The RFID-based baggage-handling solution, provided by Vanderlande Industries, with software integrated with the airport’s back-end system by Alliant Technologies, expands on the existing RFID system currently in use within McCarran’s Terminal 1. The airport had also installed an RFID solution to track and manage the routing of bags within Terminal 2, which has since been closed just as Terminal 3 began operation.

The new terminal’s system, comprising approximately 55 fixed RFID readers, monitors the movements of bags as they pass along portions of a 30,000-foot conveyor setup that also includes 73 high-speed diverters, 32 carousels and 20 Vanderlande Vertisorters. Terminal 3 opened on June 27 for international departures, and on July 31 for domestic departures, and its baggage-handling system manages the movements of about 10,000 bags daily. That represents about one-third of the luggage processed throughout the entire airport, according to Samuel Ingalls, McCarran Airport’s assistant director of aviation information systems, with a total of 38,000 bags in Terminals 1 and 3. Terminal 3, spanning two million square feet, is significantly larger than Terminal 2, says Ingalls.

McCarran Airport’s Samuel Ingalls

When a passenger checks in a piece of luggage, an airline employee affixes a baggage tag with the destination airport printed on the front in readable text, as well as a bar code. However, the tag also has a built-in ultrahigh-frequency (UHF) EPC Gen 2 RFID inlay with a unique ID number, linked to the bag’s intended route in Vanderlande’s baggage-handling software, known as VIBES.

Terminal 3’s baggage-handling solution includes 16 inline screening machines that check each bag for explosives before approving it to be routed and then loaded onto the correct flight. The system also comes with Motorola Solutions XR450 RFID readers installed above the conveyors, each with four Motorola AN480 antennas, says Ian Horrigan, Vanderlande Industries’ project manager.

When a bag is placed on the conveyor, it passes under a reader that interrogates the RFID inlay’s unique identifier and forwards that ID number to the VIBES software residing on the airport’s database. The software provides the sortation system with three layers of functionality, says Fred Marten, a controls engineering manager at Vanderlande Industries. The software manages baggage-handling-based data (for example, which luggage is destined for a particular flight), provides localized controls for the conveyor system’s programmable logic controller (PLC)—to send instructions to the conveyor system indicating the direction in which a bag should be routed, for instance—and manages the RFID read data.

Alliant Technologies, which served as the project’s systems integrator, installed and integrated the software with the airport’s back-end system. Alliant had previously provided the same service for the Terminals 1 and 2.

Once its tag has been read the first time, the bag continues traveling beneath two more readers that provide a timestamp regarding when that bag reached each of two positions along the belts prior to being moved through one of the 16 screening machines. Airport and airline employees can then view the time at which the bag reached each point, either in real time or for historical analysis, in order to determine such details as the speed at which baggage is moved at certain times or on particular days.

Vanderlande Industries’ Ian Horrigan

After passing through the screening area, the bag—if approved to continue—reaches a sortation area, at which time it is read a final time. Based on the tag ID, which is linked to the flight on which that bag belongs, the system instructs the conveyors to route the bag accordingly.

Vanderlande began working with the airport on the Terminal 3 system in 2008, Horrigan says, and tested the RFID hardware by setting up a conveyor system within its own laboratory setting. The company then carried out tests involving tagged luggage at the airport itself, to determine the locations of reader installations and subsequent read rates. The testing involved the processing of more than 500,000 test bags.

In 2005, the airport first installed an RFID baggage-tracking system for three airlines in Terminal 1 (see McCarran Airport RFID system Takes Off). At that time, interrogators were mounted on conveyors that move the bags through the screening machines. The system then routed each piece of luggage to the appropriate airplane or, in the event that the explosives detector discovered suspicious contents, to another security-screening station. Initially, Ingalls says, McCarran used only passive UHF tags complying with EPCglobal‘s Class 0 standard, but in early 2011, it switched to tags complying with the EPC Class 1 Gen 2 standard (see RFID News Roundup: McCarran International Airport Updates RFID-enabled Baggage-Handling System>). Since then, the airport has been employing baggage labels made by Print-O-Tape, using EPC Gen 2 passive RFID inlays provided by Avery Dennison.

Because the airport is utilizing UHF EPC Gen 2 technology within Terminals 1 and 3, it also has the capability to write data to the tags. This, Ingalls explains, is a function that airlines could use to provide frequent-flyer passengers with reusable tags that could be encoded with data regarding a bag’s destination, as well as new data written to it for another flight.

In Terminal 3, the airport has also installed 130 self-check-in kiosks at which passengers can print their own RFID-enabled baggage tags. To use a kiosk, a passenger must provide a credit card and pay a fee for each bag, if necessary. He or she can then select a prompt to print a baggage tag, which is provided by the machine, with a unique ID number encoded on the RFID inlay, while the Vanderlande baggage-handling software stores that inlay’s ID, along with the destination airport. The passenger can then attach the tags to his or her luggage, and turn over the bags to the airline staff.

Vanderlande’s Fred Marten

McCarran International Airport was the first U.S. airport to install an RFID-based baggage-handling system, Vanderlande reports. The company installs baggage-sortation systems at airports worldwide, but the majority use bar-code scanning technology only. Because most passengers on flights leaving Las Vegas originate in that city, Horrigan says, the RFID system at that facility is more convenient than it would be at most other airports. For example, at an airport serving as a hub in which a large percentage of departing passengers arrive via flights originating at other airports, workers would need to attach the tags to luggage belonging to transferring passengers as those bags were removed from the arriving flights, or else those other airports would need to attach the tags—neither of which would be a realistic scenario, he notes.

The RFID system provides a higher read rate than one dependent on bar-code labels, Horrigan says. With a bar-code-based solution, if a bag’s orientation makes it difficult for the scanner to see its bar code, the system will be unable to read that bag’s label. RFID technology, on the other hand, does not require a line of sight. As such, Marten says, “We don’t need to be concerned with the orientation of a bag—the readability won’t be affected.”

According to Ingalls, “The biggest advantage [to using the RFID technology] is the accuracy. It gives us the ability for bags to make it through miles of the baggage-handling system accurately.” While he notes that the technology has also reduced the amount of staff labor required to manage misrouted bags, “at the end of the day, it’s about customer satisfaction.”