Tech Talk: Airline Uses Old Technology for New Purpose

RFID

By Crystal Shorey

If you’ve ever had your luggage lost during a trip, you know how frustrating it can be. I work in the baggage-service office at the Portland Jetport, and I’m the front line of customer service to help people recover their lost bags. These people are mad, and I get many “How does this happen?”s and “They promised my bag would make it!”s.

The moving of luggage to its correct destination involves a unique tag that associates the passenger with their bag and the routing of their trip. Up until recently, the process involved airline employees using hand scanners during the loading/unloading of the aircraft to scan each individual bag and verify and track it  in the system. This process requires the employees to be diligent with the scanners for an accurate count — and unfortunately, things often go wrong.

At the end of 2016, Delta Air Lines decided to make a change to this process in hopes of reducing the amount of lost baggage. The cost for this change totaled over $50 million. It uses a technology that has been around since the 1970s: RFID, or radio-frequency identification, which, as its name indicates, uses radio waves to allow for communication between two objects.

The way an RFID system works is that an object called a reader is used to capture the radio frequencies emitted by an RFID-tagged item. When it comes to the tagging of an item, there are a few ways it can be done. The tagging RFID chips can either be considered active or passive, depending on their power source. Active RFID chips come with a self-contained power source and are constantly emitting a signal to be picked up by a reader. This technology is commonly used in beacons or other tracking devices for things that need to be tracked at a longer range. Passive RFID chips have no internal power supply, and the signal is picked up when it passes by the reader. The reader itself is the power supply; therefore, it needs to be in fairly close proximity to the tag in order for it to work.

In Delta’s case, the new luggage tags were created with a passive RFID chip embedded inside. Delta has equipped its baggage-sorting and loading equipment with RFID readers, which pick up each bag’s unique signal as it passes by and forward the information on to an internal system. Now, when passengers are given a bag-tracking number and enter it into the tracking system, they can follow along with the location of their bag as it passes past any RFID reader. For some, this has given great peace of mind, when they are sitting onboard an aircraft and an app can confirm that their luggage has already been loaded as well.

The new RFID tracking system is not without fault. Human error still comes into play, as many workers are still involved in the moving of luggage to and from the planes and belts. Delta estimated that the new system would reduce lost baggage by about 5 percent. So far, RFID has only been implemented in a few stations, and only for a short period of time. So far it has shown an improvement of about .04 percent.

Whether the benefits outweigh the cost can be debated — $50 million for .04 percent less lost luggage. I personally find that passengers have been much more at ease having access to their bags’ tracking info, and more understanding when something does go wrong.

Crystal Shorey is a student in SMCC’s Information Technology program. You can read more of her writing online at http://crystalshorey.com/.

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