Will Material Handling Put an End to Lost Luggage?

Delta Air Lines plans to virtually eliminate the problem of lost luggage by using radio frequency identification (RFID) technology in baggage tags to track the whereabouts of any bag in its possession.

The Atlanta-based airline said it will take roughly two years and $15 million to $25 million to deploy an RFID system across its domestic network. But once the job is done, Delta will be able to track a bag from the time it is dropped off at check-in until it is delivered to the baggage carousel at the customer’s destination.

“We hope to come as close as we can to eliminating the problem of misplaced baggage,” said Rob Maruster, director of airport strategy, planning and development at Delta.

While other airlines and airports have experimented with RFID, Delta is the first major carrier to implement plans for wide-scale deployment.

If the system works effectively, Maruster said, it will not only improve the flying experience of Delta’s passengers, for whom a lost bag can be a defining negative experience, but it will save the airline a lot of money. The company said the decision was not security related.

Delta last year mishandled about four bags for every 1,000 it handled, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation. Maruster said the airline spent approximately $100 million recovering and delivering those mishandled bags to passengers.

The company ran tests of the technology on flights between Jacksonville, Florida, and Atlanta. The most recent test showed the system could track bags 100 percent of the time. RFID tracking relies on tiny microchips embedded in tags that are attached to passenger bags. The chips enable readers using radio frequencies to identify the tag if it passes within 20 feet. It’s similar to the EZ Pass system used by the Massachusetts Turnpike Authority.

In essence, the system tracks a bag by identifying where it was last seen. Tag readers would be located at the check-in counter, along conveyor belts leading to baggage handlers, and at the entrance to the plane’s cargo hold.

The system could be used not only to track down misplaced bags but also prevent them from getting lost in the first place by making sure that a bag bound for San Francisco doesn’t get misdirected to a flight headed for Dallas.

Passengers may even be able to track the progress of their own luggage via e-mail or the electronic check-in kiosks the airline operates in the airport.

Henry Harteveldt, principal travel analyst with Forester Research (www.forrester.com) in Cambridge, said he didn’t think RFID would give Delta a marketing edge in distinguishing itself from its competitors.

“I don’t think a customer will choose Delta because of this,” Harteveldt said. “But if it can help Delta reduce some of the $100 million it spends each year on lost luggage and retrieval, that’s where it really starts to have meaning. This is a business improvement process, as opposed to a major enhancement in customer service.”

Michael J. Liard, RFID program director at Venture Development Corp. (www.vdc-corp.com), estimated the chips Delta will be using will cost about 25 to 30 cents apiece. The price should come down as more companies adopt RFID technology.

-- from The Boston Globe (www.globe.com)

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