Hybrid RFID and Bar-Code Reader Aims to Smooth IATA Resolution Transition for Airlines

With IATA Resolution 753 for tagged baggage on all flights, airlines globally are making the move to incorporate RFID into their baggage-handling systems, while still using the existing bar-coding systems, and FEIG Electronic is selling its ECCO+ as an enabling technology.
Published: December 27, 2018

Several European airlines are piloting the same hybrid RFID- and bar-code-based baggage-handling label technology that Delta Air Lines has deployed across its check-in counters worldwide. The handheld RFID reader-encoder and bar-code scanner serves as an affordable point of entry for airlines wishing to introduce radio frequency identification to their baggage labels, at a lower cost than that of replacing bar-code printers throughout numerous airports.

FEIG Electronic‘s hybrid ECCO+ RFID/Barcode Scanner offers airlines a way to use their existing baggage label printers, and to link a passive UHF RFID tag ID number to a bar code so that they can automate the tracking of bags and comply with the International Air Transport Association (IATA)’s Resolution 753. With the hybrid scanner and reader, the movement toward RFID deployment is made more affordable and enables the continued use of bar codes for those not yet utilizing RFID, according to Andreas Binder, FEIG Electronic’s sales manager of Panmobil products.

Andreas Binder

The ECCO+ is a Panmobil product acquired by German electronics manufacturer FEIG in February 2018. Its built-in UHF RFID reader can both read data from and write data to RFID tags, and offers Bluetooth and Wi-Fi interfaces to link information to a server.

Delta was the first airline to adopt a company-wide RFID system that tracks the receipt of baggage from passengers, as well as the point at which bags are loaded onto a plane, moved through transfer points and then offloaded at a destination airport (see Delta Gives Green Light to RFID Baggage Tracking). However, some luggage will still originate and end up in the care of other airlines, and the global transition from bar codes to RFID is expected to be a gradual one. That makes it difficult to replace existing bar-code-based systems altogether.

For one thing, Binder says, bar-code printers are already in use throughout the world for baggage label printing, and replacing them all with RFID-encoding printers would be expensive. However, he adds, airlines need to make the transition to RFID labels as the 2020 deadline looms.

Delta is using the ECCO+ solution as an add-on product, so that the existing bar-code printers can continue producing the same bar-code labels that are attached to bags before they are loaded onto planes. The difference with the labels Delta is using, however, is that they have a passive UHF RFID tag built into them. The labels can be printed on the bar-code printer as passengers provide their luggage to the check-in counter at a Delta station.

In this case, however, once the label is printed, the ECCO+ scanner, in kiosk mode at the check-in counter, automatically scans the 1D bar code generated by the printer and immediately encodes the data into the RFID tag inside the label. The collected bar code and RFID tag are then linked in Delta’s baggage-management software. From that point forward, if luggage passes to a carrier that does not use RFID, that carrier can simply scan the bar code to access information about the bag and ensure it is being properly routed. For airline personnel using the hybrid reader, Binder explains, “There is no action to take other than taking the label out of the printer and presenting it to our device, and the rest of the process is automatic.”

In the meantime, Delta Air Lines has installed an infrastructure of fixed RFID readers at conveyors where bags are sorted, loaded onto and unloaded from planes throughout airports worldwide. That data not only helps the airline to ensure that no baggage is misrouted, but also enables it to send an update to passengers using the Delta app indicating the luggage’s status, such as unloaded and available at the baggage carousel.

At present, Binder says, several airlines are searching for a simple method to implement RFID at airports around the world. “As an airline, they depend on the equipment in the airports,” he says, adding that thus far, loly a few are already using RFID, and none are using it for baggage tagging. While airlines have the pressure of the IATA resolution, the airports themselves, where the RFID baggage labels are generated, do not face the same pressure.

Mike Hrabina

“One of the biggest challenges,” says Mike Hrabina, FEIG Electronic’s executive VP, “is to get airports investing in new equipment. There’s an enormous amount of infrastructure in bar-code printers around the world. To change out those printers with RFID-enabled versions will be an enormous cost to the industry. This solution brought forward the ability to immediately enable RFID.”

Even after more airports and airlines transition to RFID-based baggage tracking, Binder says, the ECCO+ may be required for exception-based tag reads or bar-code scans. In Europe, he notes, two airlines are now piloting the technology, while U.S.-based airlines have been in discussions with Delta regarding their own deployments.

Delta gained certification from IATA for its RFID-based system at four key points along each bag’s movement from airport of origin to destination. The airline reports, based on numbers provided by the U.S. Department of Transportation, that the technology has enabled it to experience the lowest mishandled baggage rate for a carrier of its size. The airline moves 120 million checked bags annually.

In 2016, IATA conducted a study that found RFID deployments globally could reduce the number of mishandled bags by as much as 25 percent by 2022. That, the association predicts, would save the industry $3 billion. Last year, Delta won RFID Journal’s Best RFID Implementation Award, at which time Rodney Brooks, the airline’s operations field support director, said “We have more work to do, but the success to date is the result of lots of hard work by the field support team, or IT colleagues, and most of all our frontline employees” (see Award Finalists Session: Best RFID Implementation: Delta Air Lines).

Going forward, says Ashton Kang, Delta Air Line’s corporate communications manager, Delta may continue to expand its technology use for baggage management, “We continue to look for opportunities to further improve our baggage-handling and cargo systems,” he states, “enhancing our technology and processes until every bag and cargo delivery arrives with the customer as planned.”