Longest Chance offers RFID baggage tracking technology as service
A Russian airline and four airports have completed a pilot, under the oversight of the International Air Transport Association (IATA), of an RFID-enabled baggage-tracking system in Europe as part of the IATA’s Resolution 753 requirements. The resolution is aimed at requiring airlines to accurately monitor the acquisition and delivery of each item of baggage by June 2018. The solution, known as the Hand-to-Hand RFID Baggage Tracking System (HHRBTS), was supplied by Hong Kong RFID solution provider Longest Chance. The six-week pilot began in early September and ended late last month.
“Baggage is often compared to a factory, but did you ever hear of a factory with no audit on their goods in, nor a record of the goods out? This is exactly what we have in the baggage world,” says Andrew Price, IATA’s head of airport operations. “The tracking resolution is aimed at setting a minimum of data that all airlines should record regarding baggage so that mishandling is reduced.”
Longest Chance is a joint venture of ERFID, a Russian provider of RFID-based systems, and its parent company, Invido Group, which is based in the British Virgin Islands. Invido first met with Eldar Vagapov, then ERFID’s CEO, to develop a cloud-based RFID solution specifically for baggage tracking at airports, for use both by airlines and by the airports themselves, recalls Vagapov, now Longest Chance’s technical director. Vagapov continues to act as ERFID’s board chairman while providing technical support to Longest Chance.
When it comes to adopting RFID-enabled baggage management, Vagapov says, the airline industry “has a chicken-and-egg problem. Airports want it, but they don’t have the infrastructure in place.”In this case, however, Invido envisioned a solution that could be offered as a service, would be reasonably easy to install and would lower the barriers preventing airlines and airports from adopting radio frequency identification.
“Longest Chance approached IATA with the idea of tracking bags from check-in at one airport to the arrivals at another,” Price says. The system that Longest Chance has developed ensures that the correct bag leaves with the right passenger, and that the airline is informed of any discrepancy that may arise during the baggage’s journey. “We were happy to collaborate and help Longest Chance get their pilot working.” In that role, IATA acted as a consultant for the technology’s installation.
Longest Chance provides the hardware, as well as an ERFID server and software to enable its customers (airlines and airports) to know when luggage is checked in at an airline counter prior to a flight, as well as how the bags are routed to the planes, whether an error occurs, and when they arrive at their destination.The technology could potentially reduce or prevent the likelihood of misrouted bags, speed up the identification of luggage for loading into departing flights and increase passenger satisfaction by reducing the incidence of mishandlings.
For airlines, the loss of baggage is a major cost. If a bag cannot be located, the airline responsible must pay its owner, and if multiple airlines are involved in a multi-leg flight, each must incur a portion of the cost, based on the percentage of the trip’s miles during which it transported the passenger and bag. This rule can be unfair to the airlines not responsible for the loss, and especially so for the one that transported the traveler the most miles.
“We live in the information era, where information is the main resource. Baggage tracking inside the airport—apron, terminal, picking location—ensures that the baggage-handling process is performed correctly,” says Pavel S. Markovich, the baggage operation manager at Russian airline Aeroflot. “If this information is lost, the minimum consequence will be the increase of the time for the search of this lost item. The maximum risk that we could face: the baggage won’t be loaded onboard and the company will bear the financial loss, as we will have to compensate the loss to our passenger.”
The pilot’s goal, Vagapov says, was to allow both the airline and airports to view how the technology works in a real-life scenario. Longest Chance selected four airports. Moscow’s Sheremetyevo International Airport (SVO) was selected as the originating site, while the three destinations varied in size and complexity, from the reasonably large and busy Prague Airport, in the Czech Republic, to the somewhat smaller Bologna Airport, in Italy, to the very small Tallinn Airport, in Estonia. Aeroflot was the primary participating airline, with Estonian Air serving flights destined for Tallinn.
The technology was set up at Sheremetyevo’s Terminal E, with 16 reading points, each consisting of an Impinj Speedway Revolution reader with two MTI Wireless Edge antennas. The readers were installed at each point at which there is a choice in the conveyor system regarding the direction in which baggage should be routed. Therefore, at each location, the system would know if the luggage were being misrouted. The solution also employs 16 RFID printers that were already installed at the SVO airport as an option for the baggage-handling system at the time that the terminal was built, but was never used. Approximately 300,000 ultrahigh-frequency (UHF) Avery Dennison tags were utilized.
For the pilot project, passengers check in at the SVO airport for flights to the three destination facilities, and their check-in items were fitted with baggage-handing labels in the same way as with non-RFID labels. However, Vagapov says, the label in this case had a built-in RFID tag, the unique ID of which was linked in the software to the destination airport.
Once RFID-tagged, the bag began its journey down a labyrinth of conveyors, passing through up to four screening points, based on the results of the first and subsequent screenings. At each point that the bag’s RFID tag was interrogated, the software compared the destination for that luggage with its current location on the conveyor system, in order to ensure that the bag was traveling along the correct path. If, at any point, the bag was routed down the wrong conveyor, or was removed from the conveyor and failed to reappear, the software determined that there was a problem and displayed an alert for the airport’s baggage-handling managers. “They had a very granular view of what happens to every bag,” Vagapov. The technology is designed to therefore prevent a bag from ever being loaded on a cart destined for the wrong aircraft. The software was a cloud-based multi-tier system, Vagapov explains. Each airport had the software residing locally on its own database in the event that there was a problem with the Internet connection, as well as with the software collecting read data on the cloud-based server. “The local servers were for redundancy,” he says.
At each destination airport, two Speedway Revolution readers, each with two MTI Wireless Edge antennas, were installed at the loading area for the baggage carousel—one reader for standard-sized bags and the other for oversized bags, since they travel down a separate conveyor. When bags were unloaded from a plane, they were transported to the carousel’s entrance, where the RFID reader captured each bag’s ID number to identify that it had been received at the destination airport. The software collected and stored information indicating that the luggage had arrived at that destination. In that way, the data could be used in the event of lost baggage claim, to help identify where it was last seen.
According to Vagapov, the pilot showed that the technology, once installed, serves its purpose well. “The end result,” he says, “is that we have confirmed to our partners, as well as to ourselves, that we could produce read rates at close to 100 percent.”
The pilot provided a number of challenges that Longest Chance and its engineers had not anticipated at the time. “We had underestimated the complexity of these systems,” Vagapov says, noting that a variety of challenges arose, including the management of baggage that doesn’t follow the usual handling process, such as strollers being tagged in the same way as other baggage, but their tags not being read since passengers bring those items to the gate. The company says it now has the knowledge it needs to provide a permanent solution to airlines and airports worldwide, and is presently in discussions with multiple airlines, including one in North America.
Altogether, the installation at SVO’s Terminal E took five days, says Sergey Tsybouk, Longest Chance’s CEO. The installations at the Prague, Bologna and Tallinn airports each took one or two days to complete. Prior to those installations, Longest Chance was consumed with securing approvals to install the technology from the multiple interested parties. “Six months were spent on negotiations and approvals of contracts and preparations, such as integration with ARINC [baggage-management software],” he says. “The human factor takes a lot of effort and time. On the technical side, our system is very flexible and easy to install.”
For the IATA, the pilot’s goals were straightforward. “What we would like to see,” Price says, “is that the bags are following the correct path between the check-in and the arrivals station, that the right passenger has the bag and that the baggage journey is closed when the bag is returned to the passenger.”
Now that the HHRBTS pilot is completed, Markovich says, Aeroflot hopes to continue its use of the technology. “Aeroflot is interested in using this technology in vital handling baggage process,” he says, “but it is important to remember that not only the carrier is interested in implementing such kind of system, but also the airport, which provides it as an additional service for airlines and passengers.”
According to Vladimir Gavrilov, who heads Sheremetyevo’s baggage-handling service, the Moscow airport is interested in permanently deploying the technology, but also wants to see participation from all parties related to baggage handling. “Our airport is ready to start using RFID technology, but unfortunately this technology is not widespread,” he says. “We hope that the airlines will support the necessity of transition from existing systems to systems with RFID technology, firstly in order to improve the quality of passenger service, and cost saving in the future.”
Marco Rossetto, Bologna Airport’s automated technology and equipment operation manager, says he had a positive impression of the technology once it was installed. “We had a complicated starting process due to the legal rules,” he explains, citing the need to gain permission from multiple parties and organizations to install the solution. However, he says, “the installation of the equipment was very simple and fast.”
Rossetto indicates that the technology seemed to contribute to a better passenger experience, due to the speed and accuracy of the baggage-handling process.