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Stress Relief for Air Travelers

With an increasing focus on customer services, airlines and airports turn to RFID to improve baggage handling and reduce flying-related hassles.
By Jennifer Zaino
Oct 23, 2015

The days when air travel was a glamorous experience are long gone, at least for the average consumer. Today, passengers have to deal with seemingly endless security lines, baggage-handling fees, departure delays and limited leg room, while worrying where and how far away their gates are and whether their checked bags will arrive at their destination airport the same time they do. Anticipating their trips to the airport, many surely wonder: Can't something—anything—be done to make flying just a little less stressful?

Some airlines and airports have been working to do just that, turning to radio frequency identification technologies to track luggage more accurately, automate check-ins and provide an easier way for travelers to get updated flight and gate information. But it's been a slow journey toward the adoption of RFID baggage-handling solutions. And the use of Bluetooth Low Energy beacons in airports to deliver up-to-date information to passengers' smartphones is still emerging.

"RFID has helped us cut down on customer frustration... and on costs to air carriers for having to reunite bags with their owners." —Samuel Ingalls, McCarran International Airport (Photo: McCarran International Airport)
But those working in the airline and airport industry believe standards, improved technologies, and pilot projects and deployments will, in the next few years, move the sector from the transition phase it's in to one in which RFID is used worldwide to improve customer services. (Meanwhile, Airbus and Boeing are making progress working with customers to RFID-tag parts and equipment on airplanes, which should improve operations and maintenance, potentially reducing delayed departures. Some airlines, for example, can quickly check the presence and expiration status of life jackets on an aircraft.)

Missing: RFID Baggage Solutions at Airports
In 2005, the International Air Transport Association (IATA) published the RP1740C standard, which defines the requirements for applying RFID technology to baggage handling. IATA, the trade association representing and serving the airline industry, endorsed the use of ultrahigh-frequency RFID tags and readers compliant with the ISO 18000-6C protocol as a global air-interface standard for baggage tags.

Today, Hong Kong International Airport, Lisbon Airport and McCarran International Airport in Las Vegas are among the few airports that have invested in RFID systems for baggage handling and tracking. And not one airline has adopted RFID for baggage handling across its entire network. "I think it's fair to say that RFID has not taken off quite as quickly in the industry as we thought it would [for baggage handling]," says Samuel Ingalls, McCarran's assistant director of aviation, information systems.

McCarran launched its RFID baggage-handling system at its Terminal 1 facility in September 2005, leveraging Gen 1 UHF technology for sorting and routing luggage. Since then, that facility has been upgraded to Gen 2 UHF disposable tags and readers, and Terminal 3 opened in summer 2012 with the same system in place. Readers installed above conveyors at various points interrogate an RFID inlay's unique identifier, which is linked to the flight number for the luggage, and transmit that information to the airport's sortation system to ensure appropriate baggage routing. Passengers can use self-check-in kiosks to print their own RFID baggage tags.

RFID has proven itself highly accurate and stable in routing bags over the 12 miles of McCarran's complex baggage-conveyor system, Ingalls says, despite the fact that many of the airport's carriers have relatively short turn times to move bags from place to place. According to recent figures, the system achieves between a 99.2percent and 99.6 percent read accuracy for approximately 31,000 bag tags on an average day and roughly 50,000 on a peak day.

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