Perform a Google search on “lost luggage complaint” and it returns a list of horror stories to chill even the heartiest frequent flier. At a time when fuller flights and heightened security means more luggage is being checked — and lost — than ever before, some airlines and airports are hoping that radio frequency identification, or RFID, will dig them out from under a mountain of misrouted bags.
Baggage checked at large airports today is shunted into a system of conveyer belts, switches and ramps designed to move luggage quickly to the proper plane. The system’s key — and its Achilles’ heel — is the luggage tag attached to each checked bag, printed with passenger data and flight information, as well as a bar code and 10-digit identifier. Laser scanners read each bar code as it passes, guiding luggage through the system and sending data on each bag’s location to a central database so missing luggage can be traced.
But the readers don’t always work. A scanner can only pick up bar codes that pass directly in front of its laser; wet, folded or smudged tags are often unreadable, and scanners perform especially poorly when exposed to dirt or dust. “Think about how often you see the supermarket cashier cleaning his scanner so that it actually works,” says Mike Saunders, manager of aviation for Symbol Technologies, a maker of RFID equipment. “It’s the same technology, and trust me — your average supermarket is much cleaner than an airport basement.”
As a result, read rates for new bar code scanners rarely top 90 percent, and quickly drop below 85 percent as equipment ages and becomes dirty. This leaves airlines and airports with thousands of bags to sort manually each day, increasing the chance that luggage will be misrouted or lost. Last year, there were 3.5 million baggage-related complaints, a number likely to be exceeded this year.
Enter RFID, an electronic identification system that relies on tiny transponders, or tags, to store and retrieve data. It’s not new technology: Passive tags, which require no external power source, can be found implanted under the skin of endangered animals, embedded into subway fare cards, and slapped on the inventory of retailers like Wal-Mart to help manage their massive supply chains.
Applying disposable transponders to bags or luggage tags would eliminate many of the problems inherent in bar-code-based systems. Utilizing radio waves instead of lasers, RFID doesn’t require a direct line of sight between the reader and tag, and isn’t affected by dirt or dust. RFID tags are generally more weather-resistant than paper labels, and the hardware is compatible with most existing baggage systems. Most importantly, RFID boasts a read rate that exceeds 99 percent, which means airlines would spend less time and money reuniting lost bags with their rightful owners, a process The International Air Transport Association, or IATA, estimates costs the industry $2.5 billion a year.
So why haven’t airlines embraced the technology? For the same reason you can’t get a pillow or a sandwich on most flights: money. RFID tags cost 10 to 20 cents each, versus 2 to 3 cents for a printed label. Fifteen extra cents per bag might not seem like much, but for an outfit like Delta Air Lines, which carried 78 million domestic passengers last year, it adds up.
But a handful of airlines and airports believe the benefits outweigh the costs, and have moved ahead with the technology. McCarran International Airport in Las Vegas recently rolled out a baggage management system that uses RFID to handle the 70,000 bags that pass through the airport each day. “A bar code system with a 90 percent read rate means I’m manually processing 7,000 bags a day,” explains Samuel Ingalls, the airport’s information systems director. “With a read rate over 99 percent, RFID puts me in a much more manageable situation.”
McCarran’s system, which includes 300 readers located at check-in points and another 70 positioned throughout the sorting system, produces an RFID tag for each piece of checked baggage. Tags are paired with a passenger’s flight information using an Oracle database, and validated by a reader during check-in. For now, employees attach the transponders to each printed label, but in early 2007 McCarran will begin using RFID inlays already embedded in the tags.
Hong Kong International Airport has embraced RFID not only for sorting and routing luggage, but also uses it to speed its baggage reconciliation system, which identifies and pulls checked bags off a plane should their owner fail to board.
Nick Gates, manager of product and technology strategy at aviation IT company SITA, says the Hong Kong project underscored some of RFID’s technological challenges. “We discovered that when tags lie flat against a metal surface, they can’t be read,” he says. “So we placed a wedge under one area of the belt to lift bags away from the metal surface before they reached the reader.” Gates’ team members also found the RFID system reading tags so quickly that the sorter sometimes couldn’t determine which bag was associated with which signal, an issue they addressed by lowering the power level of the readers and installing special curtains to reduce the strength of the signal.
Asiana, Air France-KLM and others have launched or announced their own RFID tests, and the IATA has developed a global standard for RFID baggage tags, which uses a UHF band licensed in different countries at different frequencies, from 850 MHz to 960 MHz. “The standard makes the RFID tags for baggage a global application,” says the IATA’s Lorne Riley. “And that is key to its success in commercial aviation.”
Baggage has long been a public relations problem for airlines. In the mid-1990s, United Airlines built a fully automated baggage system for its Denver hub that became known for literally chewing bags to pieces, and the 2004 “Christmas nightmare” saw US Airways accumulate more than 10,000 misrouted bags at its Philadelphia hub in two days. The Department of Transportation publishes embarrassing monthly statistics (.pdf) on U.S. airlines’ baggage performance, and these numbers have gotten progressively worse since the London terror scare this past summer, when authorities imposed new restrictions on carry-on baggage.
Despite the growing luggage mess, it’s unclear when RFID will become the standard for baggage management. Symbol’s Saunders says it will take only three to five years, but a report from ABI Research seems less sure, noting that while McCarran paid for its entire system, including tags, baggage management in the United States is most often funded by the airlines. Federal Computer Week estimates that Hong Kong’s implementation cost $50 million, a significant sum for cash-strapped U.S. carriers.
SITA’s Gates points out that while RFID will cut down on mishandled baggage where it’s implemented, the technology will need to reach critical mass before becoming truly effective. “If you travel through three airports and only one reads RFID tags, you’ll be back to using bar codes should your bag become lost.”
Gates believes RFID offers a world of possibility for commercial aviation, and that airlines could someday use the technology to track luggage bins, catering trolleys and, more creepily, passengers themselves.
“Embed a tag in their boarding pass or give them a bracelet, and it would be quite easy to locate passengers who were late boarding their flights,” he says.
While travelers aren’t likely to complain if lost luggage becomes a thing of the past, they’re less likely to be thrilled that the agent at Gate 32 knows they’re in a corner booth at the airport Chili’s, swilling down one more margarita before their flight.
DATED: 29th November 2006