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Baggage tales

Advancements in RFID technology, new 2D barcodes and mobile tablets are just some of the ways IT is helping transform baggage handling at airports, writes Kim Madsen.

Technology – in the form of machines and equipment – is used to physically move baggage on its journey from check-in to hold, and from plane to plane, but higher forms of technology can also be seen in use as a means of simplifying the baggage handling process and keeping things moving in the most efficient way possible.

In terms of the airport baggage handling system (BHS), many developments have focused on tracking, primarily through the use of radio frequency identification (RFID) tags.

RFID tags can, of course, be part of the BHS itself – commonly being implemented in the totes of tote-based equipment to provide tracking throughout the system – or be attached to items of luggage at check-in for use in conveyor systems.

Hong Kong International Airport, Las Vegas McCarran and Aalborg in Denmark are arguably three of the most high-profile examples of airports to have had some success with RFID technology.

More recently, however, newer technologies have come into play and given rise to the concept of re-usable permanent bag tags. 

One version of this technology has been trialled by British Airways on its Seattle to London flights and the airline hopes to introduce the tag to a larger audience by the end of this year. 

After checking in online, passengers will be able to use the BA app on their smartphone to create a luggage tag for their journey. The app currently uses near field communication (NFC) to interface with the tag, updating its e-paper display of a 2D barcode. The production version is likely to use Bluetooth so as to make it compatible with all smartphones. 

The airline’s primary audience is the frequent flier who doesn’t want to spend time in line and will be able to use a dedicated area for digital luggage tag users for a fast drop-off-and-go service.

Meanwhile, Air France-KLM has developed its own version of a permanent tag, operating along somewhat different lines. It comprises a tag – called eTag – and a tracking device – called eTrack. It has two e-ink displays and attaches to the outside of the suitcase; the latter goes inside. The eTrack device uses global system for mobile communications (GSM), global positioning system (GPS) and Bluetooth to enable the user to track its whereabouts on a smartphone. 

The eTag communicates with the outside world via the eTrack device for automatic updates, and direct with smartphones via Bluetooth.

At the moment permanent bag tags only apply to single airlines – so the BA tag will not work on KLM flights, for example. This deficiency could be overcome under the auspices of IATA’s Permanent Bag Tag Working Group, which has been working to establish new industry standards.

It aims to promote the development of a generic interface for use by any airline, looking at all aspects of permanent tags including the e-ink display, 2D barcode, RFID, and NFC and Bluetooth interfaces.

Action has also been taking place in the baggage hall. For some time now Crisplant, the Denmark-based global supplier of automated material handling systems, has been working with airport operators using tablet devices to keep their baggage handling systems running at full capacity. 

An obvious benefit is that the tablets enable engineers on the floor to receive messages from the control centre about issues as they happen. They are also a repository for a wealth of information about the BHS, ensuring that the engineer always has the correct technical documentation to hand.

A tablet can even be configured to enable the user to take the control room on a virtual walk into the physical baggage handling system. 

Maintenance staff can zoom in to a specific location to get an overview of the history for the part of the system they are standing next to. If spare parts are required, the operator can assess in-house availability or order the parts if necessary. 

Having performed the maintenance or spare parts replacement, the engineer can even control the BHS element directly from the tablet to ensure that everything is operating properly.

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