A recent news item caught my attention last week. It relates to the disastrous opening of a new terminal at one of Europe’s leading international airport. Several flights had to be cancelled and passengers were left stranded. Passengers on in-bound flights had to wait for hours for bags to be unloaded. Even the flights that departed, were half full, carrying only those passengers who just had hand luggage. The cause of this chaos is being attributed to the baggage handling software that relies on bar-coding to identify bags and route them. The IT problems began when the new terminal opened and baggage-handlers experienced logging-in problems. As a result, carriers in the terminal were forced to sort baggage manually. The cost of the disruption of service to the carrier (so far) is estimated at about 100 million USD. Now the bags are being sorted and sent to their respective owners using FedEx. While the exact cause for this outage would be known in the near future, it is noteworthy that the carrier involved had chosen bar-coding over RFID for baggage tracking for the new terminal and is not a party to the RFID pilot being carried out at the airport. While employing RFID based systems may not have prevented this disaster, it certainly highlights the need for a much more robust IT backbone for ground operations at airports.
Lost baggage ,as such, is the proverbial dead albatross across all major airlines necks. It is estimated that misconnects and mishandled baggage lost the air transport industry in the region of USD 3.0 billion annually. Every missing or mishandled bag costs an average of USD 100 to replace or transport to its owner. To top it all, an airport operation has an average of some 30 disparate systems running concurrently. In addition to heavy-duty IT, the bag-handling systems at these airports are complex, highly-mechanized, computer-driven operations involving numerous physical components and subsystems. So, is there a magic wand out there that can ensure smooth handling of checked-in-baggage?
I guess, new technologies such as RFID and SOA can enable closer collaboration and a more orchestrated operation of an airport, especially of baggage handling. SOA enhances information sharing between baggage and other airport systems. Linking systems can improve quality of baggage handling through more up-to-date and complete data, and connection of baggage information with passenger information. Already, Las Vegas McCarran Airport and Hong Kong International Airport have successfully implemented RFID luggage tracking and handle around 70,000 bags a day.
At these airports, when passengers check into their flights at the airlines’ respective counters, airline workers affix passive UHF RFID labels onto each piece of luggage. The RFID printer encodes the label with an IATA “license plate” that includes the basic airline information along with passenger information and the flight number. RFID readers track the bag at various nodes: explosive-detection systems, baggage carousels, loading devices and conveyor belts, providing an audit trail and assurance that the bag is heading for its correct destination.
Eventually, airline ID will be removed from the data written onto the tag. Instead, all airlines will use a common database in which each bag’s unique ID is associated with the respective passenger’s data and the airport ID. If and when, airports all over the world begin tagging bags, they will be able to link into this tracking system. This is where master data management (MDM) comes into the RFID support information architecture. In fact, RFID data is unrecognizable and meaningless without a master product dimension to cross-reference. This is quite similar to the GDS scenario of Master Data Management. The operational actions take place by transporting the RFID data into an operational data store like structure and combining that with operational MDM.
Once this happens, airlines will be able to proactively inform passengers about the exact location of their checked-in luggage via sms etc..