RFID has returned as a cornerstone for improvements to baggage services
Baggage Getty Images

The transformation of the passenger baggage experience is gathering pace. By 2020, many airline customers will notice significant changes that will take the hassle out of managing their bags. Self-service options will increase, off-airport baggage provisions will proliferate, and transparent, real-time tracking solutions will make for a more relaxing customer journey.

The backdrop to the future is IATA Resolution 753 that came into effect on 1 June 2018. It mandates bag tracking at four key data points in the journey. Driven by both IATA and Airports Council International, Resolution 753 has benefits for all stakeholders along the aviation value chain, including the end customer.

Having tracking points makes it much easier to identify where and how mishandling may occur and allows for a more targeted service by airlines. In addition to providing extra information on the baggage journey, the tracking points will also enable a faster process when bags do miss their intended flight—reducing the delay in returning a bag to the passenger.

The mishandling rate has been reduced by more than 40% compared to 2015. We have recorded days where the mishandling rate in our hub was only just above two bags for every 1,000 carried passengers

Alitalia implemented Resolution 753 at Rome Fiumicino in November 2017 and Gianluigi Lo Giudice, Vice President, Alitalia Ground Operations, reports that “baggage management has significantly improved.”

He adds: “The mishandling rate has been reduced by more than 40% compared to 2015. We have recorded days where the mishandling rate in our hub was only just above two bags for every 1,000 carried passengers.”

For Giudice, the results prove that “Resolution 753 compliance is essential.” Alitalia’s aim is to extend that compliance to 
the majority of its key airports within the next couple of years.

The return of RFID

Resolution 753 is also a key driver behind radio frequency identification (RFID) for baggage, which is enjoying a renaissance in the industry.

Although RFID technology and the business case has always been there, the need to track bags brings added value to the RFID proposition.

Andrew Price, Head, Global Baggage Operations, IATA, explains that when RFID was first being touted as a panacea for baggage woes, airlines had no money to invest in such areas. The financial crisis had cast its global shadow and survival was the name of the game.

“That has changed,” he says. “But it is also true that the cost of tags is nowhere near the $1.50 that was previously the case. And there is much greater collaboration within the industry now, which is necessary for projects of this size and scope.”

Indeed, the industry appetite for paradigm shifts—which large-scale RFID adoption certainly represents—has improved enormously. It is also the case that the customer experience has risen up the investment priority list. Service quality is a differentiator and passengers now often pay for—and always expect—a great baggage service. Because of fare unbundling, customers paying for baggage expect it to be delivered on time. And if there is a delay, they expect to know why.

The right choice

Business case aside, RFID is also the right technology at the right time. Reader ranges and reliability have increased significantly, and RFID readily scales up. The technology has been deployed successfully in many other industries, including retail and health, providing close-to-perfect accuracy in real-time inventory information.

Speaking at IATA’s Global Airport and Passenger Symposium, Brandon Woodruff, Delta Air Lines’ Baggage Implementation Manager, said that barcode scanning was giving the airline a 97% success rate. That 3% gap, however, represented some four million bags a year. Delta evaluated a range of technologies to plug the gap and Woodruff explained that it came down to Bluetooth or RFID. Other technologies either had issues with their applicability to the range of tough environments in which they would need to work or appropriate tags couldn’t easily be attached to bags. There was also a cost issue, which eventually ruled Bluetooth out.

“There are other options out there to explore,” Woodruff admitted. “But I’m not sure there is something out there that beats RFID for the price. It is a great all-round option.”

What are the next steps?

Implementing RFID can be complex. Every reader installation point has to be examined as they are often airside or in remote locations and the whole must be viewed in network terms.

Moreover, other stakeholders, including airports and ground handlers, might be involved. If so, they need to know the airlines’ requirements. Bring in technical challenges such as Wi-Fi connectivity and it is easy to understand why tracking will take a few years to implement globally.

Nevertheless, progress is an almost daily occurrence. Recommended Practice 1740c—which refers to the IATA standard for the use of RFID inlays in baggage labels—has recently been updated thanks to considerable industry input and a complete performance specification for the inlays from Auburn University. The update ensures that all RFID inlays in baggage will perform in a consistent manner.

There are other options out there to explore. But I’m not sure there is something out there that beats RFID for the price. It is a great all-round option

Additionally, IATA member airlines are considering mandating an RFID inlay for all bag tags manufactured after 2020. IATA is gathering evidence on the topic.

Looking further ahead, the introduction of RFID infrastructure to airports will eventually lead to reusable RFID. Although Qantas offers this with their Q-Tag, there was a need to make changes to messaging standards to support the interline use of reusable RFID.

The idea is a simple one; add RFID to a suitcase and there is no further need to tag the bag. The RFID identity is a unique and permanent link back to the journey.

It will take several years before this is commonplace, but the RFID group at IATA is already working on the processes and principles for reusable RFID.

Back to business

“Baggage is a business, bringing in vital revenue for airlines,” Price sums up. “But the costs of baggage handling in the existing environment are high, from advanced technical systems to human labor. Take a look at any aircraft and the challenges of the baggage business can immediately be seen. Capacity is either under or over-utilized, regulations prevent the efficient movement of bags, and processes impose on 
the passenger.

“In short, the way baggage is handled today is not a sustainable commercial model for an airline, even though they get it right 99.5% of the time. Though RFID has long suffered from fears about cost, ease of deployment, global standards, and effectiveness, the facts are different,” adds Price. “RFID is cheap, it can be used globally, and it provides a hugely effective tracking solution.”

Spotlight on... How RFID works

A reader—which can be either fixed or handheld to help overcome irregular operations or difficult location—sends a signal to an RFID tag that activates that tag to provide data. The tag is passive until it is probed by the reader.

A reader can add to the information on the chip or overwrite existing data, a process known as encoding.

Importantly, RFID can work in parallel with current technologies and systems. In essence, baggage sortation systems won’t care whether a bag is RFID or barcode-enabled. Most experts agree that airlines will use both technologies for the foreseeable future.

That means an airline can implement RFID as slowly or as quickly as it pleases. Obviously, the faster the implementation, the faster a return on investment will be achieved.