RFID May Improve Luggage Handling

Better sorting, tracking

RFID tags have several big benefits for travelers:

-More accurate sorting. Only about 1 percent of bags need to be manually sorted, compared to the 10 percent to 20 percent that need such handling with current bar-code technology.

-Better tracking. Airlines can more accurately pinpoint where a delayed bag is located - and when it will arrive.

-Fewer lost bags. The percentage of bags lost has risen in the past four years.

A high-tech baggage-tagging system already in use in Las Vegas and Hong Kong is showing promise for reducing lost airline baggage, and this summer, an industry airline group will decide whether to force airlines to deploy the technology worldwide.

In June, the board of governors of the International Air Transport Association, which sets standards for airlines, will vote on whether to mandate a phase-in of Radio-Frequency ID baggage tags. The tags, which transmit a bag's identifying number much like a toll-road pass, reduce lost luggage an estimated 20 percent, according to industry estimates. They improve accuracy in the grimy world of baggage sorting, making sure more bags get on the right airplane. They also can be used by airlines to track the location of a delayed bag - so airlines don't have to confess they have no idea where a bag is.

Economics are also spurring the potential adoption of RFID. For years airlines have been studying the technology, but the idea has always been grounded by the cost of the baggage tags, once more than $1 apiece. By comparison, the current bar-code printed tags cost about 4 cents apiece or less. The price of RFID baggage tags has come down considerably, to as low as 15 cents per tag.

Several tests of RFID technology are underway in Europe and Asia, but the biggest implementation so far has been in Las Vegas. Instead of waiting for airlines to invest, Las Vegas McCarran International Airport decided to roll the dice and start using RFID tags on its own in September 2005, spending more than $5 million a year to buy tags embedded with a radio-frequency ID chip. The airport was hoping to reduce travel hassles.

The new technology could yield a quick improvement in airline baggage woes. Last year, more than 4 million of the 700 million bags checked for domestic U.S. travel were mishandled, and the rate for lost baggage has been increasing for the past four years. RFID has the potential to reverse the trend and ultimately save money for airlines. Last year U.S. airlines spent an estimated $400 million on lost luggage - money that went to reimburse passengers and deliver late bags to hotels and homes.

IATA has already set a worldwide technology standard for RFID so every airline in every country can read the others' tags, and secured a unique UHF radio frequency for baggage tags worldwide. "It's reaching the tipping point," said IATA spokesman Lorne Riley in Geneva. "The business case itself is relatively strong." The IATA has successfully fostered technology upgrades in the industry before: The group required airlines to implement electronic ticketing.

This is how the RFID system works: When a bag is checked at an airline ticket counter in Las Vegas or at a remote location at a casino, it gets a normal-looking baggage tag embedded with an RFID chip. As the bag goes along conveyor belts, it passes through curtained stations where receivers read the bag's identification and route it to security screening then to a drop point for the airline. From there, bags are loaded onto carts and driven out to airplanes.

The system is 99 percent accurate in reading tags, a significant improvement over the 80 percent to 90 percent accuracy that airports get with bar-coded tags read by optical scanners. Scanners often can't read bar-code tags if the tag gets twisted or covered up or it was smudged when printed because the printer hadn't been cleaned recently. So 10 percent to 20 percent of all bags get dumped into an "unknown" pile and have to be manually sorted. Some of those often don't make their flights.

Las Vegas handles more than 70,000 outbound bags per day, so 7,000 bags or more had to be manually sorted when bar-coded tags were used. RFID has reduced that to only about 700 bags a day.

Las Vegas is paying 21 cents a tag, and IATA's RFID project manager, Andrew Price, says one manufacturer has recently lowered the price for bulk RFID tags to 15 cents each, as technology advances make manufacturing cheaper. If the price gets down to 10 cents apiece, IATA projects that airlines worldwide would save $760 million annually by reducing lost luggage.

To get the full benefit of the technology, airlines would have to deploy RFID antennas at different parts of their operation, such as on belts that move bags up into the belly of airplanes. The system could alert baggage handlers to a bag about to be loaded onto the wrong flight.

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