Not Knowing Is the Hardest Part

By Mark Roberti

Whether you are trying to locate lost luggage or a shipment of critical parts, the lack of visibility prevents you from making contingency plans.

I was foolish enough, recently, to write about airlines and the potential value radio frequency identification could deliver if used to track passenger baggage (see Airlines Could Benefit From RFID-Enabled Baggage Handling). Sure enough, on my very next trip overseas, my flight from New York to London was delayed for four hours. I made my connection to Marseille, France, where I was speaking at a CNRFID event about the use of radio frequency identification by governmental agencies, but my suitcase didn't make it. And the experience of being without my luggage gave me some insight: Not knowing is the hardest part.

The baggage-handling people at the Marseille airport were very helpful. A young woman told me she could not locate my bag in her system, but she sent a note to British Airways to forward it to Marseille. I told the woman I would be in that city for only a short period, and was then going to Barcelona before returning to London for our RFID Journal LIVE! Europe event, being held on Oct. 15. "No problem," she said. "I'll make a note of that in the system. You will be updated via text as to the location of your luggage."

I didn't receive any information about my luggage that evening, so I went to bed anxious, worrying about where to buy clothes in Marseille. When I woke up the next morning, there was a text on my cell phone informing me that my bag had been put on a flight to Lyon, and that it was due to make a connection to Marseille at 8 AM and arrive by 9:30 AM. Great, I thought. I'm not speaking until the afternoon. If I have to, I'll take a cab to the airport and pick up my bag.

Not so fast.

I looked up the flight on which my bag was supposed to arrive, to confirm that it was on time. It had been cancelled. Now what? I tried calling British Airways. My assistant in New York called the airline and was put on hold for 30 minutes before the line went dead. I decided to go out and buy some clothes I could wear for my presentation.

The presentation went fine, but afterward I learned my bag would arrive in Marseille at 4 PM the next day—several hours after my flight to Barcelona. Eventually, I was reunited with my luggage in London, but I learned how anxiety-producing it is to not know where your bags are, or when you will see them again. It is more than concern about losing the items for good; it's the inability to make contingency plans.

This experience gave me an inkling of what it must be like to be a manufacturer awaiting critical parts. You don't want to shut down the production line, so to avoid the anxiety of not knowing where parts are located and being unable to make contingency plans, you order safety stocks. Everyone is ordering safety stocks, which increases capital expenditures, as well as expenses for carrying the inventory.

It would be a different story if my RFID-tagged bag was not transferred to a connecting flight. I could log on and view where it was in real time. I could then input messages into the system and have the bag redirected automatically to wherever I needed it sent. I'm sure a lot of supply-chain managers and heads of manufacturing would like to have the same kind of visibility. It might take 15 or 20 years until all airlines and airports have RFID-enabled their baggage-handling systems, but manufacturers can achieve visibility today. For those that do, not knowing will no longer be a problem.

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.