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Playing tag to track bags

By Dean Irvine for CNN
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LONDON, England (CNN) -- First published December 21, 2006

Losing a bag at the airport can be the worst start to any trip, no matter how prepared you are as a frequent flyer, so a new method of tagging bags at airports is being touted as the solution to this nightmare scenario.

The replacement for the usual bar coded labels comes in the form of Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) tags. These are tiny attachable chips, about the size of a grain of sand, capable of transmitting secure digital information over wireless networks.

Bags with RFID tags can be identified by a remote antenna, so a direct line of sight between a bag and a laser reader is not necessary, speeding up the time bags can be processed. They are also capable of holding more data with flight information and destinations, thus reducing the chance of misreads. Add to this the fact that RFID tags are hardier than their paper counterparts and it seems like a winning formula.

"Quite often the efficiency of an airport's baggage management system depends on how clean the laser readers are," Nick Gates, head of SITA's product and technology strategy told CNN.

It is not only the inconvenience of lost luggage for passengers, but mucky laser scanners and dirty labels end up costing airlines a fortune. It has been estimated that baggage mishandling and redelivery costs the aviation industry a staggering $2.5 billion each year.

The technology is not particularly new and RFID chips have been applied to other industries, from credit cards to supermarket products to help improve the accuracy of stock taking.

The technology has been trialed elsewhere, including Manchester airport, but to track passengers, not bags. It is claimed that tagging them by RFID would allow faster security check times and allow passengers more time to spend in airport shops. Manchester Airport officials calculated that passengers spend an average of 7 pence per minuet in airport shops. Increasing the time they spent by 3 minuets could increase they revenue by £2.3 million each year.

But it is with baggage that the International Air Transport Association (IATA) has earmarked RFID to really make its mark. Last year it agreed a global standard for the technology, removing a hurdle for its adoption world wide and already 10 percent of airports have adopted the tags, including Hong Kong and Las Vegas McCarran International.

SITA, the aviation industry IT company, have highlighted the success of the disposable transponders over traditional bar coded labels in its use at Hong Kong International Airport. Conservative estimates say that there has been a 10 percent improvement in its baggage management.

Las Vegas McCarran has said that its read rate is near to 99 percent with RFID, compared to nearer 90 percent with the usual barcode labels. That might not sound significant, but with over 70,000 bags passing through each day it equates to 7,000 fewer lost luggage complaints. The tiny radio receivers have also allowed Hong Kong to speed up the process when a bag has to be pulled off a plane should their owner fail to board.

So why has the aviation industry been slow to take up the technology?

The main reason is down to money. Each tag costs approximately 15 cents more than a printed paper label. It will also take investment from both the airlines and airports to implement the system - as a general rule airlines pay for the labels and the airports invest in the baggage management systems. Given many airlines current predicament it doesn't seem likely that it will be an expense they can afford.

"The tags are more expensive, but the airlines will save money in the long run, about $700 million each year," said Gates.

"But even if the cost of the tags was to come down and all the airlines to adopt RFID, the logistics of fitting out ever airport would remain. It is inevitable, but I wouldn't expect to see it for at least ten year."

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When will I see you again -- there are about 3 million baggage related complaints every year.

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