British Airport Authority is testing radio frequency identification (RFID) technology at Heathrow Airport to see if baggage tags can be read with fewer mistakes than ones with barcodes.

“Moving from variable rate of success, in terms of reading the barcode, to a very high rate of success – that’s the hypothesis that we’re testing at Heathrow,” said Stephen Challis, Head of Product Development at BAA Heathrow.

BAA’s £150,000 trial lasts six months and will deal with over 300,000 pieces of baggage. The results of the trial could provide an incentive for airlines at Heathrow to adopt the RFID system that BAA will use to manage its part of the baggage handling process.

But according to a 2007 report by the International Air Transport Association (Iata) which surveyed 361 airlines, opinions remain divided about whether investing in RFID technology is worthwhile.

The report said that while half the airlines thought that RFID would offer real benefits, other airlines argue that it doesn’t offer a return on investment and that the cost of installing RFID technology is too high.

Iata identified the varying cost of printing RFID labels and readers as an area of concern. It asked RFID label suppliers for their price list and found that for 10 million labels the cost was approximately $0.063 and for one million labels this rose to $0.125.

But with 100,000 labels the cost jumped to nearly $0.188, which might make RFID expensive for smaller airlines. Existing barcode printers may also need modification to print RFID tags and this cost should be borne in mind by airline operators, said Iata.

Currently, if a barcode tag isn’t printed properly or it gets wet or crumpled, it cannot be read by lasers in the baggage system. This requires a baggage handler to manually determine where the misread luggage should go and is something BAA wants to reduce. RFID overcomes this problem because it does not require the tag to be in the line of sight of the reader.

But according to Iata, barcode reading problems are only responsible for causing 9.7% of all mishandled baggage at airlines. The main reason for baggage mishandling is the late arrival of flights (e.g. caused by bad weather), where a passenger had a transfer to catch (30.1%).

To truly reap benefits from RFID, the IATA analysis of baggage mishandling showed that 80 airports would need to be equipped with RFID.

Andrew Price, Project Manager RFID at Iata, said that the global interoperability of RFID tags could be a challenge in airlines because they transmit on slightly different frequencies and can be read with varying sensitivity.

“That makes it difficult to home-in on what exactly you’re reading. That’s the challenge in baggage handling,” he said.
However at the beginning of February 2008, GS1, the European Telecommunications Standards Institute (ETSI) and the European Committee for Standardisation (CEN) three major standards organisations, launched the Global RFID Interoperability Forum for Standards (GRIFS), a support action project funded by the European Union. Its aim is to improve collaboration and maximise the global interoperability of RFID standards.