Reasons for RFID

Aug. 8, 2004

Tech Bytes

Reasons For RFID

By Jodi Richards

August 2004

Jodi Richards, Associate Editor

McCarran International Airport strives to be aggressive when it comes to implementing technologies that will better operations and the passenger experience (see pages 12-14).

According to Samuel Ingalls, assistant director of information systems, the next big IT project at LAS is security, including 100 percent RFID (radio frequency identification) bag tags.

“We’ve had the opportunity,” he says,” as we looked at the in-line screening landscape, to really start with a clean sheet of paper. We did not have any type of legacy baggage transfer or baggage sortation system in place.”

Ingalls says the airport looked “out on the technological horizon” and determined that RFID would provide the most benefits. It chose to implement the electronic product code (EPC) standard, “which looks like it’s going to be the worldwide standard for RFID. So we aren’t off doing something in the airport that won’t work anywhere else.”

Explains Ingalls, “We have a little over 60,000 outbound bags a day. The challenge is that the optical scanning system has somewhere between an 80 and 90 percent validity on read rate. If we miss even ten percent of some of those reads, on an optical system, that means 6,000 bags every day that [are misdirected].”

While savings are realized from a labor standpoint as well as the cost of reuniting the bag with the passenger (which some estimate can be about $150 per passenger), customer service is even more of a concern. “I’ve only had my bags lost/misplaced once, eight years ago. But I remember the city, I remember the airline, and I don’t remember them happily. We certainly don’t want our customers here to have that memory of Las Vegas.”

The projected goal is 99.9 percent read accuracy. From initial tests being performed at the manufacturer’s test facility, says Ingalls, “we’re obtaining regularly absolute 100 percent accuracy.
“We are really going to push it before it’s deployed — push the limits of the system with different types of bags. You name it, we’re going to throw it at the system.”

According to Ingalls, in the long run the RFID system will be less expensive than an optical system. The airport has some $20 million currently earmarked for RFID tags, which “may not be realistic because that’s at today’s tag prices.”

He adds that as more and more industries outside of aviation use RFID tracking technology, the price of tags will be reduced. “I’d never say it’s [the price of RFID tags] going to drop drastically because of aviation use; it’s only going to drop because of the Wal-Marts and retail environment.”

As part of the in-line screening project, RFID only represents a small portion of the security investment at LAS. The entire system is expected to cost some $125 million, and the airport has a Letter of Intent for some $93 million. This cost also includes five two-story buildings to house screening technology, referred to by Ingalls as nodes, and a screening area in the cargo center. “The system is collecting bags from several different airlines, running them through the screening system, and then returning them, not just to the airlines, but to the right carousel and the right pier.”

Construction for the nodes is currently underway, with the north and south nodes expected to be completed in July. The screening area at the cargo center will eventually be used for off-site checked baggage, which is planned for in the future. “That gives us the opportunity to use that facility as a test lab and really hammer the system and make sure it’s functioning just the way it needs to be functioning before we move that back into the operational areas of the terminal,” says Ingalls.