IATA’s mandate coming into force next year which is designed to reduce the $2 billion annual cost of lost baggage to the aviation industry, has sparked renewed interest in existing technology such as RFID chipped tags. Airport Focus International reviews the findings of SITA’s latest baggage survey and the impact 753 initiatives are having on airports.
If you were to rate poor passenger experience from a scale of 1 to 10 with 10 being the worst possible score what factor would make that journey from the airport to aircraft to destination airport so poor that a passenger would award a score of 10?
For most passengers, the prospect that airport ground handling staff or their carrier loses their checked baggage in transit would probably be very high on the list.
But it is not just poor passenger experience and a customer who may be reluctant to come back that results from lost baggage. The cost to the aviation industry to recover and reunite passengers with their lost bags is significant. According to figures from SITA the global bill was US$2.1 billion last year.
Because of this airports and airlines are looking to introduce new technology and innovation to reduce the loss baggage count further.
Industry regulators also take the problem extremely seriously. On the carrier side of the equation under IATA’s resolution 753 which comes into force in June 2018 there will be four tracking points at which each bag via its unique 10-digit tag number must be recorded.
These are at check in, loading on to the aircraft, any transfer of bags between carriers and arrival at the destination airport. This new inventory also needs to be shared electronically between carriers and airports.
This step change in baggage resolution will require a major investment in ICT and a number of carriers and airports are already doing this. The latest SITA baggage report for 2017 published this month provides a comprehensive overview of some of the progress that has been made to date.
Among the airline baggage initiatives, the Star Alliance created a dedicated Alliance IT hub for baggage, which went into operation at the end of 2016. The aim is to help member airlines reduce the number of baggage issues. “While mishandling a bag is a relatively rare case in our Alliance, despite the fact that we carry almost 1.7 million passengers every day, when things do go wrong it is highly annoying to any customer affected,” said Mark Schwab, Chief Executive Officer, Star Alliance. “We believe modern technology can be of tremendous assistance in significantly reducing the number of baggage issues and providing faster and more accurate information for our customer service agents. As ever, our ultimate goal is to provide the best possible service to our travelers.”
The airport community is also preparing to strengthen baggage IT. The majority plan to have business intelligence initiatives in place around their baggage operations by 2019 according to the Airport IT Trends Survey 2016. In addition, around half plan to implement Aviation Community Recommended Information Services (ACRIS) recommended practice for baggage. ACRIS provides a service-oriented architecture that enables airports, airlines, partners and suppliers to exchange and process data in a standardised way.
One of the technologies for tracking baggage more efficiently is Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) enabled tags. While there are a number of initiatives taking place with the technology the SITA report shows that not everyone agrees that it is the best solution and airports in particular believe that the technology will need to be driven by carriers if it is to be widely adopted.
RFID is not new – it is a proven technology that has been around for many years in other industries. However, there is fresh interest in deploying RFID chips embedded in bag-tags as they can be used to accurately track passengers’ bags in real-time across all the key points in the journey. RFID readers use radio waves to activate and capture the data stored on the RFID chip, so the license plate on the baggage tag can be read even when it is hidden under the bag, meaning bags do not need to be individually manipulated to be read. RFID readers can automate the process of capturing each tag in a pile of bags or in a container in a couple of seconds. This means that less bags are misread or not read at all and this results in fewer mishandled bags.
By increasing the reading accuracy, RFID technology offers improvements to track bags throughout their journey, in particular, on arrival and transfer. On the latter, RFID brings new ways to address mishandling during transfer from one flight to another, one of the key areas identified by SITA and IATA where technology could help improve baggage handling rates. This is because paper tags degrade during the journey through wear and tear, making them more difficult to read, whereas RFID chips do not.
SITA and IATA believe this technology has the potential to save the industry more than US$3 billion over the next seven years by improving baggage management and operations. A sticking point has always been the cost of RFID tags, as these are based on volume and can be high for small-scale deployments. However, more widespread adoption will help drive down costs and the savings associated with RFID help to recover these costs quickly. In fact, SITA and IATA calculate that RFID capabilities can be deployed for as little as US$0.1 per passenger on average, while generating expected savings of more than US$0.2 per passenger.
Orlando International is the most recent airport to invest in RFID. Construction work is due to get under way later this year on the US$1.8 billion South Terminal Complex Phase 1 Terminal C, which will feature a state-of-the-art baggage handling system that will offer 100 percent baggage tracking thanks to RFID. The airport says the system will have faster than conventional baggage conveyors; it will have a lower life- cycle cost; and its modularity will allow for future expansion.
Vaclav Havel Airport in Prague has also taken part in a Hand-to-Hand RFID Baggage Tracking System Pilot organised by Longest Chance and overseen by IATA.
According to ICT Airport Operations Systems manager Stanislav Lukás the pilot jointly involved Aeroflot and its flights from Moscow Sheremetyevo Airport to Prague, Bologna, and Tallinn Airports. The goal was to demonstrate the capabilities of RFID baggage tracking to improve the quality and read-rates in the baggage handling operations.
“The benefits of RFID were proven, the read-rate was sufficient, but we do not see other airlines, apart from Delta Air Lines, adopting RFID. And it is obvious that the support of airlines is a crucial factor for success, as this activity has to be driven by airlines and not by airports,” he says.
“Currently, we are planning to test automatic bag-tag readers. We want to verify the read-rate of the devices on arrival and test the back-end solutions for the data exchange.
“The challenge is to ensure that the provided solution is suitable for all operating carriers in terms of their requirements and from the data exchange perspective. The opportunity is to continue with baggage data sharing across the aviation industry. This may lead to further benefits for all parties involved in the process, and improve their services to passengers during the travel journey.”
There are also a number of innovations relating to baggage tracking technology that are set to come to the market. A company called Cognex Corporation is about to launch the world’s first image-based automatic tag reader that according to the developers overcomes the limitations of laser-based baggage IT systems. The developers say the system can accurately read tags after transfer when they are often damaged during the loading and unloading process from carrier to airport.
SITA Lab and SITA product managers are working on several initiatives that will allow the air transport community to scale up their tracking capabilities without massive capital investments. On the data management side of things, these include the use of a central community repository platform to host all the individual bag tracking events in a shared environment. From this shared environment, tracking events collected in multiple airports from multiple stakeholders can be distributed to airlines’ baggage systems or consumed over the platform web interface. They can obtain a list of bags on a flight (the bag manifest requested by IATA Resolution 753) or call up the tracking events for an individual bag investigation. SITA is also developing application program interfaces (APIs) to allow airlines to share tracking information with their passengers over their own mobile application.
To be fully Resolution 753 compliant, data capture is necessary and innovative solutions need to be considered to support it anytime and anywhere. SITA is working on making a mobile phone a portable bag-tag reader. A standard smart phone can be used as is, or inserted in a ruggedized case, and either its native camera, or an external scanner (Bluetooth) for better performance, scans the bag. The software will be a mobile app available from the iOS or Android app stores. All events tracked by this solution will be sent via 3G or WiFi network to the central community repository so that they can be accessed by all authorized stakeholders in the same way as existing baggage messages. This scanning solution will be autonomous and can be used during disruptions when bags may need to be stored and tracked outside of usual locations and, for smaller airlines and airports, used at transfer and arrivals.
Resolution 753’s requirement for tracking bags at arrival will be a new element for many airlines and their airport partners – and an opportunity to improve the bag collection experience. The scanning arches that read bag-tag barcodes to route bags at high speed through the bag sortation system are over- engineered for an arrival belt. SITA is therefore working with industry partners on scanning arch technologies to be used at arrival that can read barcodes or RFID data, or to take pictures of bags that read the characters on the tags. These will provide the airport with performance metrics on when the first and last bags from a flight are loaded onto the arrival carousel.
German airport operator Fraport has been tracking bags for more than 20 years and uses a combination of laser scanners, imagery and RFID. Fraport is also testing Optical Character Recognition, with all readers linked into its baggage sortation, management and reconciliation systems. “If we handle a bag in our system environment and take responsibility for a bag, we scan it,” says Markus Mueller, Senior Manager, Baggage Infrastructure.
“We meet all requirements for Resolution 753 within the baggage infrastructure and we have already started roll-out with some airlines. Just a few arrival carousels are currently still not equipped with integrated readers. We started roll-out on some arrival belts two years ago, but interrupted the roll-out to develop a new concept that will be smaller and provide a better read-rate. We will finalize the roll-out in 2018, the biggest challenge being the installation of additional readers within the existing arrivals infrastructure where there is not enough or no space. Until this has been solved, we may use our own hand scanners as an interim solution.
“We have been sharing data with some of our partners for many years, not only for statistics, but also for operations, for example direct services for short connections. With Resolution 753 we hope to get more detailed information from airlines and origin stations that will help us to maintain and improve our common performance together with our customer.
“It is very important for us to provide an airport common- use infrastructure that fulfills the requirements of Resolution 753. The most unfavorable case for an airport like Frankfurt, or any ground handler, would be to use 20-50 or more different scanner devices from different airlines. That would be impossible to handle without deep impacts on performance and workload for our employees.
“As we already have many tracking points, we didn’t start at zero. The investment for additional readers and IT enhancements are depreciable over several years. Our airline customers will get a great service and will save a lot of money rather than invest in their own scanners.
“On the IT side, we have to do some customer-specific changes in our Message Generator. We participate in the IATA Baggage Working Group to upgrade the RP1745 standard for Resolution 753. We will have to modify our Message Generator again, if the standard is completed. Also, we have to talk with each airline to assist their Resolution 753 rollout.
“Airports and ground handlers will become completely transparent. We are not afraid of that transparency, but we know that each airport, ground handler and airline is different. This diversity of airports and processes around the globe and the mass of data will lead inevitably to more misinterpretation and misunderstandings. That has to be avoided. It will be a lot of work to make that new transparency understandable and useful worldwide.
“Tracking data is the basis for analyzing mishandling reasons…and only once you know the problem and the reason, can you change it.”
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Ultra Airport Systems
IATA is an airline organisation, and Resolution 753 places an obligation on airlines, not airports. But the majority of airlines are not in a position to install their own tracking infrastructure at every station they fly to (and in some cases, the airport won’t let them), so there is an increasing reliance on airports to provide airlines the information they need in order to be compliant with IATA’s resolution.
Baggage Handling systems can already provide tracking information via industry standard BPMs; and automated Baggage Reconciliation systems can provide the same. That isn’t the whole story, though. Different airports, and different airlines within those airports, may have different opinions on whether a particular tracking point provides the information they need (for instance, is Load into ULD an adequate tracking point for ‘Bag Loaded’, or is Position ULD more appropriate). Airlines and airports need to work with their providers to decide exactly what should be recorded; and then that data needs to be exchanged.
To support the adoption of Resolution 753, IATA have published an Implementation Guide. The first issue was released in February following the IATA Baggage Working Group meeting in Dallas, and issue 2 will be released following the next meeting in Amsterdam in June. The guide aims to fill in some of the blanks left by the text of the resolution itself. It explains what ‘Baggage Tracking’ means, as this will mean different things to different organisations; it outlines ways in which that data can be exchanged between parties; it includes a Data Charter, which can form the basis of agreement between those parties; and it discusses how both tracking and exchange can begin to realise the benefits of the resolution that IATA are predicting. The guide is available from IATA’s Baggage Services website.
Ultra Airport Systems have been providing Airport IT solutions for more than 30 years, and were the first company to provide Baggage Reconciliation in the early 90s following the Lockerbie and Air India bombings. Shaun Penton, Product Manager for Baggage Solutions, Ultra Airport Systems told Airport Focus “Any automated Baggage Reconciliation system can record the information required for an airline to comply with resolution 753; but recording the data isn’t the whole story. Each of the tracking points required by the resolution must be identified, so the presence – or not – of the bag at a certain point is unambiguous. Once the bag has been recorded at that position, the semantics of that tracking point should be identified – tracking points can indicate acquisition, load, transfer or delivery. And finally, the data needs to be capable of exchange in some way; so providers need to be able to exchange that data as required by the airlines.
“Ultra are investing in cloud based systems which allow this exchange of data; and smart technology allows messages to be routed to the right place with ease, so transfer messages are automatically forwarded to the connecting airlines. In addition, new lightweight applications which run on a standard smartphone allow our customers to be able to acquire information about any bag from wherever they are on the network, and also log the location of that bag so staff downstream can identify where that bag is. API integration allows airline or airport applications to retrieve the current status of the bag, which can then be reported either to staff or passengers according to the customer’s wishes. All of these are tried and tested technologies, but when combined they become a powerful tool for tracking bags across an airport or airline network.
“Through the IATA strategic partnership program, Ultra are engaged with IATA and a number of airlines, airports and other providers [including Fraport] to agree how messaging can be modified in order to simplify compliance with 753. For instance, IATA’s RP1745 (the Recommended Practice that describes the format of Baggage Information Messages) is ambiguous on location in its messages, so the engagement there is to provide clarity by including zones which can indicate that a location is in a Check-in, Transfer or Arrivals, for instance, so the meaning of the message become clear.
“It is important that providers like Ultra are quick to respond to the recommendations issue by IATA in order to simplify the process for airlines and airport. Conversely, it is equally important for airlines to decide how they want to approach Resolution 753, and then talk to airports, ground handlers and providers to discover the most cost effective way of achieving compliance.
“Compliance is just a means to an end. IATA believe that in order for an airline to comply, they will have to improve how they track their bags. In doing this, they will reap the benefits described in the resolution: Reduction in mishandling; reduction in fraud; and ultimately, increased customer satisfaction. I, for one, tend to agree.”