Wireless Ways To Track Your Tumi
By David Pescovitz, Wed Jun 02 18:15:00 GMT 2004

Wi-Fi and RFID amp up the efficiency, and hopefully the accuracy, of airport baggage handling.

Baggage handling at airports has always been a big challenge for industrial engineers. It's tough to find the sweetspot where efficiency, accuracy and security intersect. For instance, Delta Airlines apparently mishandled 4.21 bags for every 1,000 passengers in the month of April alone. Finally though, airlines are bumping up their operations with a range of wireless technologies.

Delta's baggage tractors at the Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport have been outfitted with wireless PCs that display their next baggage pick-up/drop-off destination. Previously, drivers had to stop back at the central office between every run.

"Normally, we have to go back to a central office and pick up our next order, which can take 15 minutes if you are at one end of the terminal," senior bag handler David Kozma told USA Today. "And then you might have to wait another 10 minutes to get in line."

According to Delta, a similar deployment at Atlanta's Hartsfield International Airport improved bag handling by 13%. That's not bad, but it's nothing compared to the near-perfect accuracy the airline enjoyed during two recent tests with radio frequency identification tags (RFID) slapped onto baggage. RFID readers strategically located throughout the airport -- from check-in stands to loading machinery to baggage carousels -- enabled the airline to wirelessly follow a bag as it moves through the system.

Still, deploying a Wi-Fi network like Delta did for the tug tractors is far less expensive than installing RFID technology throughout the baggage handling system. A Delta spokesman said the price of RFID chips would have to drop to 5-10 cents each, from their current 25 cents, before the airline would begin its own system-wide deployment.

But while the airlines are strapped for cash, airports seem to be willing to pony up the dough. Last week, Matrics Inc. announced that they'll provide an RFID-based baggage handling system for Hong Kong International Airport. Their technology will also be used (PDF) in an airport-wide baggage handling system currently under development at McCarran International Airport in Las Vegas, whose manager says the manpower savings it will provide will more than offset the tags' costs.