Delta is implementing a new $50 million baggage-handling
system based on radio frequency identification (RFID) technology that is
expected to reduce the number of the airline’s lost and mishandled bags by 25%.
“They clearly have an intention to improve passenger
processing,” said Caroline Camilli-Gay, the baggage program manager with the
air transport information technology company SITA, which each year publishes an
analysis of mishandled baggage worldwide.
Early this year, Delta began converting from the longtime
industry standard — bags tracked via
optical bar-code scanners — to a system in which bags are tracked and
identified via radio frequencies.
Once the system is fully installed, Delta will be making
more extensive use of RFID tracking technology than any airline in the world,
according to Camilli-Gay.
The technology itself is not new. McCarran International
Airport in Las Vegas, for example, has been using radio frequencies to track
all baggage it handles since 2005. And Australia’s Qantas began using RFID
bag-gage tracking for frequent fliers within its domestic network in 2010.
RFID bag tags are embedded with a small chip and radio antenna. The tags otherwise have a similar look and feel to traditional barcode tags.
Those who have checked bags in Las Vegas in the past decade
or on some Delta flights this year might have been unaware of the RFID tracking
system, in large part because the bag tags appear similar to those used in the
standard barcode system.
What passengers can’t see is that within each RFID tag is a
small, embedded chip and a radio antenna.
David Bourgon, manager of airport IT services at McCarran,
said that while the industry standard for accuracy when it comes to bar-code
scanning of bag tags is just 80% to 95%, the RFID system at the Las Vegas
airport is accurate 99.5% of the time.
Unlike many airports, where baggage handling is run by the
airlines, at McCarran the airport is responsible for tracking bags as they move
from check-in counters to TSA screening and then as they move from screening
back to the airlines to be sorted for specific flights.
Bill Lentsch, Delta’s senior vice president of airline
operations and customer service, said Delta has thus far achieved 99.9%
accuracy where it has deployed RFID tracking, up from the airline’s bar-code
accuracy figures of between 85% and 97%.
Bourgon said that radio frequency systems work so well because
they merely have to pick up a signal rather than read a tag. Bar-code systems
can make mistakes when bag tags are smudged or wrinkled, for example, or when
the reader itself is dirty or fogged.
“It’s an antenna,” Bourgon said of RFID. “Dirt doesn’t matter.
Clarity doesn’t matter.”
With improved accuracy comes greater efficiency, as the
fewer mistakes the tracking system makes, the fewer employees must be deployed
to provide manual scanning and backup. As a result, airports and airlines that
make use of RFID can add extra checkpoints, which in turn further reduces the
chance of a bag being lost or misplaced, Camilli-Gay said. Indications from
Delta and others that have used RFID tracking are that it reduces
baggage-handling errors by 25%, she said.
Thus far, Lentsch said, Delta is scanning bags using RFID
both pre- and post-flight at all 84 domestic airports in which it is adding the
system. The carrier is also printing RFID bag tags at each of the 344 airports
around the world to which it flies. In 64 airports thus far, Delta has
installed belt loaders that give either a green or red light as a bag is being
loaded onto a plane.
“Not only are we improving our baggage performance but also
improving the passenger experience,” Lentsch wrote in an email to Travel
The airline’s move comes both as baggage handling is on the
upswing industry-wide and as airlines prepare to comply with an IATA mandate
that by 2018 they be able to track each bag, step-by-step, from the checkpoint
to its destination.
According to a SITA study, the rate at which airlines
mishandled bags in 2015 dropped 10%, to 6.5 bags per 1,000. Last year’s results
continued a trend that since 2007 has brought the number of mishandled bags
worldwide down from 46.9 million to 23.1 million, even as the number of bags
handled by airlines has increased.
The mishandled bag rate among U.S. airlines was just half
the worldwide average in 2015, at 3.3 per 1,000 passengers. Camilli-Gay said
that is likely a result of this country’s extensive domestic aviation network,
which means a greater proportion of travelers fly direct than in other places,
thereby reducing the chance of a baggage handling mishap.
In its study, SITA credited technology upgrades for the
industrywide baggage handling improvements. Still, Camilli-Gay said that ahead
of the 2018 IATA mandate, fewer than half of airlines around the world track
whether a bag has been loaded onto its flight, and fewer still track whether
the bag has reached its destination.
In 64 airports thus far, Delta has installed belt loaders that give either a green or red light as a bag is being loaded onto a plane.
Delta, along with American, already offers customers an
opportunity to track bags on its mobile app. By year’s end, as Delta finishes
installing its RFID system, it plans to enhance that feature with push
notifications that tell passengers when their bags make it on the plane and also
when they can expect them to be delivered to baggage claim.
RFID systems can also have other benefits. Lentsch said that
unlike barcoded bags, which employees must search for individually, radio
frequency enables workers to take inventory of a full room of bags
simultaneously. As a result, they can more quickly reroute baggage when a
person misses a flight or has other itinerary disruptions.
Meanwhile, Qantas has initiated a highly automated check-in
process by distributing and selling permanent radio frequency bag tags, which
are coded with a flier’s information. When the passenger drops off the luggage
it is scanned and automatically linked to that person’s flight details.
“They’ve helped us turn our domestic terminals from quite a
cluttered environment with long queues at peak times into a calm space that’s a
lot easier to navigate,” the airline said in an email.