RFID bag-tag test proves a soaraway success

Delta Airline's RFID luggage tagging test notched up a staggeringly accurate tracking rate. However, the airline has admitted...

Delta Airline's recent RFID luggage tagging test notched up a staggeringly accurate tracking rate. However, the airline has admitted that the high cost of a systemwide roll-out will mean a gradual implementation.

Delta Airlines said accuracy levels in the test ranged from 96.7% to 99.9% during a test in which it used radio frequency identification tags to track 40,000 pieces of luggage from check-in to loading on planes.

The success rate of the RFID technology was far better than the 80% to 85% accuracy rate typically provided by bar code scanners, according to officials at Delta and the IT companies that took part in the test.

Pat Rary, manager of baggage strategy at Atlanta-based Delta, said the trial run at the airport in Jacksonville, Florida, was invisible to the airline's check-in agents and required no new training.

Delta spokesman Reid Davis warned that the airline and others in the cash-strapped industry would need to proceed slowly with any systemwide rollouts of RFID tags. Delta operates at 81 major airports worldwide, and Davis said equipping all of them with RFID bag-sorting systems would require "a significant capital expenditure".

Nonetheless, Delta plans to continue exploring the technology. Rary said it has received tentative approval from the US Transportation Security Administration (TSA) to run another test this month using RFID tags made by Californian company Alien Technology. The first test, done in conjunction with the TSA from 23 October to 15 November, involved tags supplied by Matrics and SCS.

Rary said the second test will give Delta a chance to try different methods of deploying tags, including the use of better printers to write bag-routing data onto RFID chips embedded in standard bar code labels. The airline's goal is to develop a bag-tracking system with a "zero mishandling rate", he added.

High success rates

Phil Heacock, director of advanced sortation technology at FKI Logistex Group, said that with one exception, the RFID bag-tracking system in Jacksonville provided read rates well above 99%. Scanners on the bag belts inside the terminal averaged 99.8%, and the ones on aircraft belt loaders had a success rate of 99.9%, Heacock said. FKI Logistex Group served as systems integrator for the test.

RFID scanners mounted on universal load devices, which automatically load containers of bags on to planes, averaged 96.7% accuracy. Heacock said the containers are made of metal, which impedes radio signals, and that coating their interiors with a material that will better reflect radio waves could help improve accuracy.

Heacock said that Delta modified a standard bag-tag printer to capture data normally used to print bar codes. The information was then written on to RFID devices inserted into standard luggage tags. RFID readers tracked the progress of items through the airport's bag-handling system, including the explosives-detection machines that are operated by the TSA.

The aircraft loaders were also equipped with RFID readers and were hard-wired to ruggedised computers, which used 802.11b wireless Lans to transmit data to Delta's back-end baggage systems.

Getting the funding needed to install RFID bag-tracking systems will be the latest challenge, said Gene Alvarez, an analyst at Meta Group, although he added that he expected the technology to become a standard throughout the airline industry.

Bob Brewin writes for Computerworld

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