Why Use RFID Technology for Baggage Handling?

Posted November 21, 2012

Most airlines struggle day to day with a variety of issues related to survival—issues such as unpredictable fuel costs, uncertain global economies, and tight finances. To combat these challenges, airlines continuously seek to better their operations, and RFID technology is at the forefront of process improvement.

RFID technology can aid and assist in multiple areas to reduce costs and increase operating revenue through improved asset visibility, consumable inventory management, food and beverage delivery management, retail item inventory, sales management, and baggage handling efficiency. This white paper addresses baggage handling specificaly.

Estimates by the International Air Transport Association (IATA) put mishandled baggage costs at approximately $US 2.5 billion for 2009 alone-equivalent to the cost of nearly 50 Boeing 737-600s. This industry problem spans cities, regions and continents. While many assume full participation by all parties is necessary to completely rectify the problem, RFID-enabled baggage tagging efforts already in place show that local or regional implementation of RFID on baggage can have significant benefit, resulting in improved service, substantial cost reductions or savings, and increased customer satisfaction.

Each airline has its own way of dealing with the baggage handling issue, with some having better results than others. RFID has had significant impact on visibility and missed baggage in airports such as Hong Kong International, Italy’s Milano Malpensa, Lisbon, and Denmark’s Aalborg International. Where barcode technologies were providing read rates as low as 60%, RFID read rates came in as high as 99.8 %, and weekly equipment maintenance requirements dropped to annual. RFID has the added benefit of being globally interoperable—the same tag works as well in Hong Kong as it would hours later in Las Vegas, or Lisbon.

So why hasn’t the industry just adopted and implemented the technology? Limited funding is one answer, but the penchant for believing that benefits will not be realized until adoption is comprehensive (bags tracked along all segments of a journey) also persists. This belief has led many airports, handlers and airlines to delay implementation until mandated. But proactive airport management teams who have taken a hard look at their process have determined that performance improvements and savings resulting in a real return on investment are possible even with local implementation. And in an age where consumers face increasing fees (such as checked baggage charges), the ability to provide improved service while reducing costs can go a long way toward improving an airline’s reputation and building brand loyalty.

You Can’t Fix What You Don’t Understand

It is best to first clearly identify goals. Where are the baggage handling problems areas? What are the system loading and capacity point limits? Are there certain times during the day, particular weeks, or even months when more problems occur? Most operations people already have some idea of problem areas and are a good resource when considering where to begin. It is possible to extract data from existing barcode baggage systems to help determine problem areas, but it will not address all processes.

As it turns out, RFID technology can provide visibility into processes without incurring the cost of a full implementation. With an RFID-enabled baggage quality measurement system that involves tagging a statistically significant percentage of the checked baggage, installing read points (both fixed and mobile) at critical areas throughout the baggage handling process, and providing unbiased data through an easily accessible interface, all participating parties have immediate visibility into problem areas. Through an iterative process, these parties can cooperate to fine tune the process. The readers, tags, and software needed for such a quality measurement system are generally off-the-shelf and readily available.

Another benefit of beginning with a quality measurement approach is that organizations gain familiarity with the technology, see the benefits first hand, and can help clearly define the ROI for full implementation using real, unbiased measurement data. It’s a cost effective, low risk process improvement approach that the automotive industry has used with great success for over 30 years.

Problem Understood, Now What?

A measurement system provides process improvement insight and helps to build the business case for RFID, as it clearly demonstrates the advantages RFID technology has over barcodes. The next stage is implementing RFIDenabled tagging to track, trace, and control the travel of bags from ticket counter check-in to their final destination, which in the case of localized RFID implementation remains within the confines of the airport. The goals are to eliminate miss-sorts, improve read rates and visibility, reduce maintenance costs and manual labor, reduce delivery delays to and from the aircraft, and—perhaps most importantly—improve customer satisfaction.

This stage is more complex to implement and requires careful planning, an in-depth understanding of baggage handling logic and controls, and familiarity with the environment. Success depends on a clear understanding of radio frequency (RF) communications, channel planning, RF propagation issues related to the technology of choice, and ISO 18000-6C compliant technology. Careful selection of all the components along with application and installation of the technology is key to success. Working with companies experienced in the field, including integrators, label converters, tag inlay and tag chip suppliers, and reader vendors is critical to meeting cost and delivery targets.

Implementing RFID to Improve Passenger Service

RFID technology has been around since World War II. Why is now the perfect time to implement an RFID-enabled system? For starters, the technology has evolved over the last decade to a point where a return on investment is viable. And customer satisfaction cannot be overlooked. At a time when air travel has been economically hit and consumers need only look on the Internet for details about an airline’s or airport’s performance, the need to improve customer service and build a brand known for that service is paramount to survival. Plus, the global standards necessary for success in an industry that spans the world are already in place and actively being advanced. Outlined below are things to know when considering an RFID implementation.

The Tag

An RFID tag comprises an integrated circuit (tag chip) mounted on a substrate along with an antenna. This resulting “inlay” is then “converted” by being sandwiched between a label and its adhesive backing to yield a printable label (or in case of the baggage handling application, a printable baggage tag). These ingredients and steps often involve multiple vendors, whose expertise varies. IATA has created recommended practices for RFID technology, and it pays to respect their specifications.

As in all technologies, there are leaders and followers. For tag chips, Impinj leads in innovation, performance, and in the development of standards. Impinj’s highly reliable tag chips result from a combination of high read and write sensitivity and excellent noise interference rejection. In addition, a unique dual antenna input structure supports omni-directional tags, which help solve application impediments that often limit overall system performance.

The antenna inlay assembly, a key element responsible for harvesting RF energy and communicating information, is also critical to system performance. Antenna designs are many and varied, as different applications require different approaches. Regardless of the application, most important is the vendor’s ability to produce a high quality and reliable product in high volume. This process is capital intensive and vendors must have the skills and expertise for application of ultra low pitch component placement, bonding, die cutting, and automated processing. There are few vendors that have these skills and capability. UPM Raflatac is one of those few, having the financial depth, skills, and technology needed to provide quality inlays in volume. They have a portfolio of products to address most applications, are continually inventing new solutions based on customer demand, and provide inlays with Impinj tag chips.

The third component, the bag tag, carries the substrate/tag chip/antenna inlay, and provides a means for presenting human readable text as well as barcode symbols. In baggage tag form, the inlay becomes pliable, applicable, and relevant. Baggage tag quality, consistency, and construction are critical for this application. The baggage tag must survive a trip where potential rough handling and exposure to a variety of environmental conditions such as rain, snow, sleet, hail, etc. are possible. The baggage tag must protect the inlay, provide a background for printing symbols, and have an adhesive that will ensure the tag remains attached to the baggage. Because RFID tag conversion (creating a baggage tag from the inlay) is also a capital intensive industry, only a few vendors have the depth and experience needed for consistent success. George Schmitt & Company not only has the capability and experience with conversion of RFID inlays, they also have a considerable history of supplying baggage tags to the airline industry.

The Read Station

The read stations provide visibility, tracking the position of the baggage on the conveyor, belt, or tilt-tray. Simply said, but difficult to do with high reliability and accuracy. A read station comprises a high performance ISO 18000-6C compliant reader, multiple suitable fixed antennas, control middleware, reader management middleware, and system software. The reader must have the ability to provide propagation characteristics of the reflected data as well as the tag identification (TID) number. Among the few reader vendors that can provide the performance needed, Impinj stands out again with a discrete, high performance, compact reader solution. The reader management middleware must be able to process and filter tag data in real time, as well as manage multiple readers. It needs to communicate with conveyor control middleware, and pass ID and system information to the system software.

Final Thoughts
Innovative improvement of the baggage handling process is a holistic task that requires a firm understanding of the business, organizational, technical, and
political aspects of baggage handling. Communication between airport, handler,
airline, and the leading providers of baggage handling systems is critical for
process improvement success.

For more information about RFID-enabled baggage handling, or any RFID application, contact us at Barcodes Inc.

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