Bag Tracker

Radio frequency identity (RFID) tags promise to revolutionise baggage handling, making sortation systems both faster and more accurate. However, costs and standards issues need be resolved first.

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By  Neil Denslow Published  June 6, 2004

|~|suitcase_m.jpg|~||~|Baggage handling is a difficult issue for airlines and airports that offers many challenges, but little in the way of rewards. Passengers expect their bags to appear on the baggage carousel in the arrivals hall at the end of a flight, and will say nothing if it does so. However, if the bag doesn’t arrive, the customer will loudly complain and tell numerous other people, damaging the reputation of both the carrier and the airport, and potentially its future traffic levels. “A lot of airlines and airports appreciate that baggage handling can be a service differentiator,” says Peter Dallaway, senior director, business services, airport & desktop services, SITA INC. “If a passenger has repeated unpleasant experiences in one airport, they may not choose to use that hub as a transit point in future.” The main system for identifying bags in an airport at present is the barcode tags that get stuck onto a bag when it is checked in. These tags carry the passengers’ flight number and destination, including any transit points, and the data can be read by scanners, either fixed units by the conveyor belt or handheld devices. These barcode systems, especially when managed by a baggage reconciliation system have greatly improved baggage sorting, but they still don’t ensure 100% accuracy. In fact, it is generally accepted that seven in every 1000 bags go astray during flights, and this can be a major cost for the airline. Aside from the damage to their reputation, the carrier also needs to find the missing bag, get it to the customer using a courier company and, potentially, pay compensation to the passenger. “If a passenger knows that their bag is not going to be reunited with them for two days, then typically an airline has to pay for items such as clothing and toiletries,” notes Garry Earner, heading of marketing, Ultra Electronics Airport Systems. One of the major reasons that bags get lost is due to the misreading of the bag tags attached to the luggage. If a tag gets torn, for instance, or if it was badly printed in the first place, then the barcode readers on the conveyor system will be unable to scan the tag and get the right data. To overcome the weaknesses of barcode paper tags, the industry is slowly moving towards replacing them with Radio Frequency Identity (RFID) technology instead. There are a number of problems associated with RIFD at present, but it eventually promises to cut down the number of lost bags substantially. The greatest advantage offered by RFID is that the tags are much less prone to misreading, which means greater accuracy and faster bag sortation. Unlike barcodes, RFID tags don’t degrade, and the scanners are also able to read them from further away, which means that a misplaced tag is not a problem. As a result, the number of tags rejected, and which require re-reading by hand, falls from around 15% to almost zero. “[RFID] greatly speeds up the throughput of baggage, as optical scanning can only be done at one speed, and then you get a 5-10% reject rate that you need to scan manually,” says Dallaway. “With RFID, you can dramatically improve the throughput.” Information about a number of bags can also be much more quickly gathered, which then makes it quicker to find a specific item of luggage, such as the bag of a passenger who has failed to turn up for a flight. “If you want to scan an entire ULD [of bags], with RFID tags, it can be done with a single operation,” notes Martin Miller, sales & marketing manager, Alstec. “Whereas, if you wanted to do it with barcode readers, you would have to take every single bag out and scan them by hand.”||**||II|~||~||~|RFID bag tags are being piloted in a number of airports around the world, notably McCarran International in Las Vegas, but their widespread introduction is still some way off because of two main issues: costs and standards. The price difference between paper tags and RFID tags at present is substantial. The paper tags cost around 7 cents each, while RFID tags cost at least 20 cents if not closer to twice that. The 13 cents difference may not sound huge, but at an airport the size of Dubai, which handles 50 million bags a year, it clearly makes a difference. “The cost [of RFID tags] is going to have to come down before the benefits are realised,” admits Earner. When the cost of RFID tags will fall to the level where they can be thrown away is the key question. The prices of tags is falling, and driven on by the likes of Wal-Mart and the US Department of Defence, which have mandated the use of RFID tags by suppliers in the near future, the IT industry is investing heavily in the technology. However, the time when the price will fall to five or ten cents a tag is still some way off, and some analysts suggest that a fundamental shift in the technology is needed first. “An analysis of the pricing and technology trends in the individual tag components reveals that economies of scale can drive tag prices down only so much,” says Meta Group analyst, Bruce Hudson. “More important to tag costs are the limits of the fundamental technologies involved,” he comments. “With the current state of technology, the five cent tag is not economically viable.” Airports can, however, avoid some of the expense of implementing RFID bag tags, but gain some of the benefits, by implementing a tray-based baggage handling system, such as the Siemens Dematic system used in Dubai. Tray systems have a number of advantages, including the fact that they cut down the cost of using RFID, as the trays are marked with re-usable tags rather than the throwaway ones need for bag tags. “With a tray system, you can track the bag 100% of the time,” says Gerhard Kleber, head of baggage handling, Siemens Dematic. “Because we are using RFID technology to identify the tray, we know exactly where each bag is at any second.” Such a solution makes tracking a bag within the airport’s sortation system much easier and more accurate. However, once the bag is taken out of the tray and put into a ULD and then onto an aeroplane, it can no longer by tracked by RFID. As such, a tray system is not a complete substitute for RFID bag tags, as the benefits are only within the airport’s sortartion system itself. To truly improve bag tracking, the RFID tags need to be attached to the bags themselves and they also need to work across different airport and in the aeroplane. However, this not only requires cheaper tags, it also needs the introduction of a standardised RFID system in the industry, which is yet to be established. Standardisation is key, however, as only then can the bag seamlessly flow through each stage of its journey from the check-in desk to the arrivals hall. “An organisation like IATA must come up with a standard,” says Kleber. “If you use different [radio] frequencies at different stations, then we lose the advantage of RFID,” he adds. Standards are also key to exploiting the memory capability of RFID tags, which are capable of holding more data than just the flight number and destination. For instance, the passenger name, address and contact details could be stored on the chip, which would then make returning a lost bag to its owner much more straightforward. However, this data is of limited value if it can only be accessed within the airport or terminal that issued the tag in the first place. “The current bag tag contains fairly minimal information, and you can improve the amount of information put on an RFID tag, which will provide better service, but then that begs questions on standardisation,” notes Dallaway. The industry has yet to agree however, on which radio frequency will be standard for RFID bag tags. IATA does have a working committee looking at the subject and ultra frequency (UF) looks likely to be chosen — although this is not assured — but at present a variety of different standards are being promoted by different bodies and manufacturers. “At this point in time, there are still too many organisations claiming that a particular frequency should be used,” says Earner. “However, it may well be that market forces dictate which way it goes, because ultimately it will probably be the tag that is the cheapest that wins out.”||**||

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