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Issue #2004 - 02 (February 2004)
(Updated Feb. 9, 2004)


Delta Says RFID Devices Pass First Bag-Tag Test
Technology scores high on luggage tracking, but costs slow airline's plans 

Source: Bob Brewin - COMPUTERWORLD

DECEMBER 22, 2003 ( COMPUTERWORLD ) - Delta Air Lines Inc. last week said it got accuracy levels ranging from 96.7% to 99.9% during a test in which it used radio frequency identification (RFID) 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 that's typically provided by bar code scanners, according to officials at Delta and the IT vendors 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, Fla., also met a key requirement: It 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 will likely 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 Transportation Security Administration to run another test in January using RFID tags made by Alien Technology Corp. in Morgan Hill, Calif. The first test, done in conjunction with the TSA from Oct. 23 through Nov. 15, involved tags supplied by Matrics Inc. in Columbia, Md., and SCS Corp. in San Diego.

Rary said the second one 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 that are 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 in the Louisville, Ky., office of FKI Logistex Group Ltd., 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. Coating their interiors with a material that will better reflect radio waves could help improve accuracy, he added.

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 ruggedized 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 can be a challenge now, said Gene Alvarez, an analyst at Meta Group Inc. But he added that he expects the technology to eventually become a standard throughout the airline industry.

Source: Bob Brewin - COMPUTERWORLD

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