In search of lost air­line lug­gage fix

Delta goes ex­tra mile to en­sure bags get to cor­rect site

Baltimore Sun - - NATION & WORLD - By Scott Mayerowitz

LINTHICUM, Md. — Vic­tor DaRosa stands un­der a scorch­ing af­ter­noon sun, load­ing bags onto a jet head­ing to De­troit.

As each suit­case climbs up the con­veyor belt into the plane, a small com­puter ver­i­fies that it be­longs on that flight. If one bag didn’t, a red light would flash and the belt would stop un­til some­body ac­knowl­edges the mis­take and reroutes the lug­gage.

This is the fu­ture of bag­gage han­dling.

Delta Air Lines is in­vest­ing $50 mil­lion to soothe one of air travel’s big­gest headaches — lost and de­layed lug­gage.

Delta car­ried nearly 120 mil­lion checked suit­cases last year, col­lect­ing $25 in fees, each way, for most do­mes­tic bags. For that price, fliers ex­pect their suit­case to be wait­ing on the carousel when they ar­rive.

Delta al­ready has one of the air­line in­dus­try’s best lug­gage han­dling records — just 1 out of ev­ery 500 bags failed to ar­rive on time — but hopes that by de­ploy­ing a RFID, or ra­dio-fre­quency iden­ti­fi­ca­tion, track­ing sys­tem glob­ally it can im­prove fur­ther.

If the sys­tem works, other air­lines are likely to fol­low.

Ul­ti­mately the bag tag might be re­placed with per­ma­nent RFID read­ers in our suit­cases, re­duc­ing the chances fliers in the fu­ture will start a va­ca­tion miss­ing their swim­suit.

“It’s a very smart move,” says Henry Harteveldt, founder of travel con­sul­tancy At­mos­phere Re­search Group. “It’s one that will help in­crease cus­tomer con­fi­dence that their bags will ar­rive with them.”

RFID wire­lessly identi- Delta Air Lines is in­vest­ing $50 mil­lion to help fix one of air travel’s big­gest headaches — lost and de­layed lug­gage. fies tags at­tached to items. The technology is used at ware­houses to track goods, but Delta’s roll­out is the first global use for pas­sen­ger bags.

To bet­ter un­der­stand the technology, think about your lo­cal su­per­mar­ket. If ev­ery gro­cery item had an RFID tag, cashiers wouldn’t have to scan each prod­uct at check­out. In­stead, the gro­ceries would pass by a scan­ner and be in­stantly reg­is­tered. Shop­pers could even leave every­thing in their cart, hav­ing it all tal­lied at once.

The same prin­ci­ples ap­ply to checked lug­gage.

Most air­lines to­day use bar codes on tags to iden­tify each suit­case — each tag has its own unique 10-digit num­ber — and make sure it is loaded onto the right plane.

But read­ing each bar code with a hand-held scan­ner is time con­sum­ing. Of­ten, a bag or two aren’t scanned or er­ror mes­sages are missed by work­ers fo­cused on get­ting planes out on time.

Delta de­signed its sys­tem to stop those er­rors. At the air­line’s 84 largest air­ports — ac­count­ing for 85 per­cent of its pas­sen­gers — Delta will have 1,500 spe­cial belt load­ers with RFID read­ers built in. Those load­ers — like the one DaRosa was us­ing — stop when a bag for a dif­fer­ent flight is placed on the belt ac­ci­den­tally.

“It’s amaz­ing technology,” says DaRosa, a ramp su­per­vi­sor who has been test­ing the technology at Bal­ti­more Wash­ing­ton In­ter­na­tional Air­port. “It’s go­ing to to­tally elim­i­nate a bunch of care­less lit­tle er­rors.”

Re­plac­ing hand- held scan­ners al­lows ramp work­ers to use both hands to lift bags, re­duc­ing in­juries and speed­ing up the load­ing and un­load­ing process. RFID also short­ens the time needed to find and re­move a bag from a plane at the last sec­ond. All of that means more on-time flights.

Delta is also us­ing RFID to track bags through the labyrinth of con­veyor belts be­low ter­mi­nals. If bags fall off a belt at a par­tic­u­lar curve or get suck at a junc­tion, Delta will now have enough RFID read­ers — about 5,200 glob­ally — to pin­point the trou­ble spot and fix it. The At­lantabased air­line says it plans to have the sys­tem on­line in 344 air­ports by the end of Au­gust.

The new tags look like tra­di­tional ones. But if held up to the light, pas­sen­gers can see a finger­nail-size chip and a credit card size an­tenna in­layed in­side.

By the end of this year, fliers will be able to track their bags through the Delta smart­phone app, get­ting push no­ti­fi­ca­tions at each step of the jour­ney.

If a bag misses its flight, pas­sen­gers are also no­ti­fied in­stantly.

That way pas­sen­gers “aren’t stand­ing at a bag­gage carousel wait­ing for the last piece of lug­gage to come off to re­al­ize their bag isn’t there,” says Sandy Gor­don, Delta’s vice pres­i­dent of air­port op­er­a­tions for the eastern U.S.

Most pas­sen­gers’ bags do ar­rive on time.

But there are some hic­cups, with 1 out of ev­ery 500 bags Delta car­ried last year fail­ing to do so. It’s a record sur­passed by only Vir­gin Amer­ica and JetBlue Air­ways, which both have smaller and sim­pler route net­works. Twice as many were de­layed last year on Amer­i­can Air­lines, ac­cord­ing to sta­tis­tics re­ported to the De­part­ment of Trans­porta­tion.

Bags of­ten get de­layed when bad weather forces tight con­nec­tions or pas­sen­gers are rerouted onto new flights.

Of the 245,000 bags Delta mis­han­dled l ast year, 208,000 of them ar­rived within three hours, ac­cord­ing to the air­line. An­other 25,000 were re­united with pas­sen­gers within 12 hours. The re­main­ing 12,000 were ei­ther lost or took more than 12 hours to be de­liv­ered.

In­stalling RFID isn’t go­ing to solve all of Delta’s bag­gage prob­lems. But the air­line es­ti­mates a 10-per­cent re­duc­tion in de­layed bags. That means about 25,000 fewer bags the air­line has to de­liver to pas­sen­gers’ homes, of­fices or ho­tel rooms.

For the past five years, Aus­tralian air­line Qan­tas has of­fered a per­ma­nent RFID bag tag that fliers can pur­chase for about $23 and use when fly­ing the air­line do­mes­ti­cally.

Sev­eral big air­ports, in­clud­ing those in Las Vegas, Hong Kong, Mi­lan and Tokyo, use RFID to track bags through parts of their sys­tems.

But Delta, the world’s sec­ond largest car­rier by pas­sen­ger traf­fic, is pro­vid­ing the most-com­pre­hen­sive track­ing the in­dus­try has seen to date.

Air­lines have long found RFID too pricey, but the cost has dropped. McCar­ran In­ter­na­tional Air­port in Las Vegas says it pays 12 cents for each RFID tag, down from 21.5 cents a decade ago.

Tra­di­tional tags cost the air­port 3 cents. Delta re­fused to say how much it’s pay­ing for RFID bag tags, ex­cept that it is less than 10 cents each.

It in­cludes bags checked at the gate and claimed at a bag­gage carousel.

But items like strollers or bags checked at the gate for re­gional jets — those picked up at the ar­riv­ing gate — cur­rently aren’t tracked with RFID.

PA­TRICK SEMANSKY/AP

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