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Air Transport Industry Weighs Benefits of RFID

Airports and airlines that have adopted RFID technology show it can make myriad operations more efficient—cutting costs, improving safety and security, and delivering customer services.
By Mary Catherine O'Connor
Aug 22, 2011—Back in 2003, McCarran International Airport, in Las Vegas, placed a bet on radio frequency technology: It would bring baggage handling under its own operations, rather than have the airlines continue to manage the bags checked into their flights. And it would replace a bar-code system for tracking and sorting baggage with RFID, to improve speed and accuracy. McCarran is a major origin and destination for travelers, making it one of the highest-volume baggage-handling operations in the United States. On an average day, roughly 30,000 bags are checked in here, and that number can swell to 70,000 on days when a large conference ends, says Samuel Ingalls, McCarran's assistant director of aviation information systems.

Today, that bet has paid off. McCarran equipped airlines with RFID printer-encoders to generate RFID labels. Tagged bags move on conveyor systems outfitted with RFID readers through multiple buildings, as they are screened and then sent to the designated airlines. The airport accurately reads the RFID tags attached to "north of 99 percent—sometimes north of 99.5 percent" of the bags it receives, Ingalls says. The industry-standard read rate for bar-code labels generally averages around 85 percent. (Bar-code scanners often accumulate dirt, degrading the laser arrays, or the labels get folded so the bar codes can't be read.) Accurately tracked bags are less likely to be lost or misplaced, which translates into fewer liabilities for the airport. And, of course, it means a smoother travel experience for passengers.



But unlike McCarran, most U.S. airports do not manage baggage, and most airlines have not invested in RFID-based baggage-tracking systems. In Asia and Europe, where airports are more likely to manage luggage, Hong Kong International Airport, Portugal's Lisbon Airport and Denmark's Aalborg Airport are among the air-transport facilities that have RFID tracking systems in place. Several airlines have tested RFID for baggage handling, but only a handful, including Air France-KLM and Asiana Airlines, have adopted the technology.

In 2007, mishandled baggage cost the air-transport industry $3.8 billion, according to SITA, an IT and communications services provider to the air-transport industry. In recent years, there has been a 40 percent decline in mishandling rates, which SITA attributes to software improvements in bar-code systems, and fewer checked bags—due to the recession, which resulted in fewer passengers, and the introduction of baggage fees at most airlines. But as the economy recovers and travel increases, airlines may see the number of mishandled bags and the associated costs climb again.

For now, adoption of RFID baggage-handling systems lingers, as airports and airlines try to figure out how to move forward. Meanwhile, some airports are finding value in RFID-tracking assets, such as dollies, hazardous cargo and vehicles. Other airports are developing RFID applications to improve customer services on the ground. And one budget airline has adopted RFID to keep passengers happy in the air.
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