Cargo securityRFID-based airline baggage handling tested

Published 10 October 2006

RFID technology is spreading to more and more sectors of the economy; the latest to test the RF tracking system are airlines and airports, both aiming to make baggage handling more streamlined and accurate; challenges for the adoption of the technology remain, though, chief among them is cost

RFID technology is being used more and more for all kinds of tracking purposes. The Pentagon and Wal-Mart, among many other organizations, have been gradually implementing a policy requiring their suppliers to tag the merchandise and supplies they provide — either by the crate, box, or pallet. — with the RF tags so that these provisions may be tracked better through the supply chain. RFIDs have replaced traditional tags in cattle’s ears so that ranchers and meat processors can better track livestock and animal disease.

RFID tags are now coming to baggage handling. Trials and pilots continue, but it is not yet clear when RFID baggage handling will reach maturity. We have some indications, though, about the contribution RFID baggage-handling will make to the growth of the RFID sector. Oyster Bay, New York-based research firm ABI Research has just released a study examining emerging RFID applications in the airline industry and in the postal and courier industries. According to ABI, the overall systems revenue for RFID airline baggage handling will be $11.8 million this year, growing to almost $27.5 million in 2011, a CAGR of 18.49 percent.

International air travel is up, but the U.S. domestic market is flat. “Cash-strapped U.S. airlines have been more reluctant than their overseas counterparts to invest in RFID, although they express interest for the future,” says ABI’s Robert Foppiani. “One of the barriers to adoption of RFID for airline baggage tagging has been the tag price. Because the tags must be disposable, they must be cheap.” In the United States, the majority of baggage handling is done by the airlines themselves. In non-U.S. airports, however, operators tend to provide unified baggage handling systems for all the airlines they serve. Who, then, will pay for RFID: airlines or airports? Another obstacle RFIDs must overcome is the legacy barcode tracking infrastructure used by airlines around the world. The barcode system is less flexible than RFID, but it is well-entrenched and works most of the time.

There are currently RFID trials taking place in Hong Kong, Las Vegas, Narita, and Qatar. Air France-KLM is conducting a joint trial at Paris-Charles de Gaulle and Schiphol airports, and South Korean carrier Asiana has run a domestic six-city pilot. Tags and readers from Hottsville, New York-based Symbol Technologies are used in the majority of these trials, along with RFID chips from Seattle, Washington-based Impinj.

“In general,” says Foppiani, “specific country markets within Europe and Asia will lead the charge; Asia’s less efficient barcode systems are ripe for replacement, and Europe has many transit hubs