In 2022, over 26 million pieces of baggage were lost or mishandled at airports, amounting to more losses than any other year in the past decade. And as with any mishaps in business, it comes with a hefty price tag for airlines. It costs the aviation industry billions of dollars every year. IATA estimates that it can cost airlines as much as US$100 to repatriate a bag with the passenger, and then there is damage to customer loyalty and overall journey experience to consider.
New technologies are being implemented to make the baggage handling process more efficient. I will examine the problems associated with the current reliance on barcode labels, and suggest the roadmap to implement a more effective wireless technology that will make baggage handling a much more efficient and traceable process.
Since the early 1990s, the air transport industry has dramatically cut mishandling rates by using barcodes printed on baggage tags. These barcodes are used to track the bags' progress from check-in to retrieval. Readers scan each unique barcode at various points to ensure the bags reach where they need to go.
For a successful read, the barcode label needs to be in direct line-of-sight of the reader. In addition, the barcode label needs to be presented cleanly, with no wrinkles, scoring or damage. Obviously, these conditions are challenging to meet on a fast-moving conveyor belt, resulting in a significant share of all barcode reads involving some error. Each time a read error occurs, the bag must be diverted and identified manually, which adds labour and introduces delays, especially when changing custody between airlines, ground handlers, and airlines and airports.
In June 2018, IATA issued Resolution 753 (R753) to address the challenge of baggage mishandling, obliging its 290 member airlines carrying 83% of the world's air traffic to meet the specified guidelines in order to track baggage more accurately. R753 mandates bag tracking at four key data points in the baggage handling journey and recommends the use of RFID technology to support more accurate baggage tracking. RFID tags provide each piece of checked baggage with a unique identity, enabling more accurate tracking and reducing delays in returning lost bags to customers.
Today, most travellers still see the familiar barcodes on their baggage. But some of these baggage labels also carry a tiny radio frequency identification (RFID) tag too. If that is the case, one might ask why so many bags were lost last year. The answer to this question is that although we are in a transition phase that allows both RFID tags and barcodes to be handled together, many airlines and airports still need to implement the technology and install the infrastructure required to read these tags.
Benefits of RAIN RFID tags
Increasing the visibility of baggage in the system through wireless technology will reduce costs, increase efficiency and open up new opportunities for partners in the ecosystem. Of all the wireless technologies available, RAIN RFID is viewed as a proven and cost-effective solution. RAIN RFID devices operate within the ultra-high frequency (UHF) band and align with industry standards. They are already widely in use for inventory control, supply chain and logistics applications, with over 34 billion units sold in 2022. The technology has been particularly well-adopted in the retail industry, where RAIN RFID tags offer fast and accurate end-to-end tracking, enabling organisations to know the status of their inventory.
One of the key benefits of implementing RAIN RFID is that it is a passive wireless technology, meaning it does not need a battery to operate. The RAIN RFID tag uses energy supplied by the reader to transmit and receive data. Another benefit is that, unlike barcode readers, RAIN RFID readers do not need line-of-sight for a read, which results in very high levels of accuracy compared to barcode reading. In addition, hundreds of tags per second can be identified simultaneously. That means that instead of the ground handler having to read each barcode tag individually, the RAIN RFID reader can scan bag tags for an entire flight within just a few seconds.
Compared to a barcode read point, which can cost tens of thousands of dollars, a RAIN RFID read point can cost much less. Because the technology is much cheaper, more read points on the baggage conveyor system and mobile readers on the tarmac are viable. Potentially, readers can be on the back door or trolley wagon. Indeed, airlines and airports could also have visibility airside and groundside, enabling an end-to-end flow from terminal A to terminal B, and from airline A and airline B.
RAIN RFID tags can even be designed for repeated use. Some airlines have already implemented repeated-use tags for frequent flyers to enable them to skip check-in, for instance. However, the more likely implementation is in the form of a printed tag, with the adhesive backing of the label securing the RFID chip and antenna. NXP’s advanced UCODE RAIN RFID solutions are already used in a wide range of tracking applications and are well suited for use in aviation use cases, with several inlays and tags available on the market.
Transitioning through a hybrid system
The seemingly inevitable implementation of a new RFID baggage tag system faces one major hurdle: operators who have invested for years in a now well-entrenched barcode reading infrastructure that includes software, barcode reading hardware, barcode label printers and barcode-specific operational processes.
Airlines and stakeholders are therefore likely to favour a phased transition to break up the capital expenditure for any new system into manageable chunks and limit any potential disruption to their operations. Eventually, RAIN RFID will become the predominant technology to track baggage, significantly enhancing operational efficiency, reducing costs, and ensuring customer satisfaction. And, as passengers, we might once and for all rid ourselves of those familiar feelings of dread and anxiety when waiting for our bags at the baggage carousel.