Would you treat your air cargo like luggage?

Frequent travelers may quip that their luggage has seen more of the world than they have. The problem of mishandled luggage, including lost bags, is on the rise. U.S. Department of Transportation (www.dot.gov) statistics show the average number of mishandled bags rose from 4.61 to 4.81 per 1,000 passengers between August 2003 and August 2004. Given these statistics, why would you want to see your air cargo treated like luggage?

The industry generally recognizes that stopping the problem of mishandled and misrouted luggage where it begins is a good job for radio frequency identification technology (RFID), if the airlines and airports are willing to invest.

The financial impact of mishandled baggage is huge. An airline like Delta Air Lines (www.delta.com) will spend $100 million a year locating and returning 1 million of the 80 million bags it flies, says a representative of SITA (www.sita.com), a technology supplier to the aviation industry. That's an average of $100 per bag, well below the industry average $140 to $150 per bag. Bags that are not reunited with their owners cost the airlines an average of $140 each (based on the $20 per kilogram allowed under the Warsaw Convention).

Industry initiatives are aiming at wider use of data collection technology on both the passenger and baggage sides. The goal is to provide 100% e-ticketing by 2007 and to replace magnetic-stripe boarding passes with bar codes. Baggage, which currently uses bar code and human-readable tags, should see growth in the use of RFID tagging for identification.

Unfortunately, RFID tags on cargo are on a slower adoption schedule. Delta was the first to introduce RFID to its baggage transfer system in Cincinnati. By 2007, the airline expects to tag every bag it flies within the U.S. with an RFID baggage label.

Only 8% of airports currently offer RFID tracking for passenger baggage, according to SITA. Plans are in place for this to grow to about a quarter of those airports in the next two years. SITA notes there are only a few plans to expand RFID systems to cargo services in the next four years.

The Transportation Security Agency (TSA) (www.tsa.gov) has conducted field tests of RFID tags at several airports and found a 99% readability rate. Only two airports — Hong Kong International and Las Vegas McCarran — are currently installing airport-wide baggage systems capable of reading RFID tags. There was no indication this would extend to cargo handling areas.

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