By Claire Swedberg
Nov. 16, 2011—Eighteen months after launching its Next Generation Check-In (NGCI) system using radio frequency identification
to automate baggage check-in at Perth Airport, Qantas Airways
has permanently deployed the solution at all six of its major Australian airport locations, as well as at dozens of smaller regional airports. The system features the airline's Q Bag Tag
, which contains an EPC Gen 2
passive RFID inlay
and attaches to luggage, thereby enabling self-service RFID-enabled baggage drops to be used at all of its hubs in Australia.
ICM Airport Technics
—the two companies that created the technology behind the system—are currently developing a generic version of the RFID-enabled baggage tag, dubbed the Permanent Bag Tag (PBT), that could be used by other airports and airlines worldwide. The new tag could not only be read
at airports that have deployed RFID interrogators, but also display passenger and flight data on its built-in electronic-paper screen at those lacking RFID.
At Qantas' self-service baggage drops, passengers follow prompts on a touch screen, and then place their bags on the conveyor belt, which weighs each bag while an RFID reader captures its Q Bag Tag's unique ID.
In July 2010, Qantas Airways went live with the first phase of the NGCI program, at Perth Airport (see Qantas Launches Its Next Generation Check-in System
). There are 80 RFID-enabled check-in stations at the six major airports, Tagsys reports, noting that by October of this year, the Qantas automated system had processed more than four million bags, with more than three million Q Bag Tags in circulation. Each Q Bag Tag can be reused for an unlimited number of flights.
The solution also aids baggage handlers, by displaying each bag's destination on a video monitor as the luggage passes an RFID reader, thereby helping to ensure that bags are not misrouted to the wrong airplane.
ICM Airport Technics supplies baggage-handling systems, such as check-in kiosks and X-ray machines. Since July 2010, the firm, together with Tagsys, has equipped all six of Qantas' major Australian airport sites with the two companies' RFID-based self-service bag-drop system.
The Q Bag Tags are utilized only at airports in Australia, so ICM Airport Technics and Tagsys intend to market their generic version for use at all airports worldwide, whether or not RFID
infrastructure is already in place. The PBT tag, the companies explain, will come with a small electronic-paper screen for visually displaying information, such as the flight number, the owner's name and possibly a bar code
The RFID chip
built into the Q Bag Tag
can store the details of up to four flights, and can be reprogrammed at read
points for future flights. Qantas is providing the tags to its customers for use in conjunction with contactless loyalty cards that can be utilized as permanent boarding passes to speed up the self-check-in process. In addition, the airline is selling its Q Bag Tags on its Web site for AUS$49.95 (US$50.35), though its online shop is currently offering a "buy one Q Bag Tag, get the second free" promotion, and frequent fliers can use their points to obtain a Q Bag Tag for free. Qantas Airways declined to comment for this story.
Each Q Bag Tag contains an EPC Gen 2 passive RFID
At each airport, RFID reader tunnels on the BHS read the Q Bag Tags for the purpose of sortation. A screen located at each loading position displays the flight details of the Q Bag Tag being read by the interrogator. According to Alain Fanet, Tagsys' CEO, baggage handlers read the screen to ensure that the luggage is being sorted appropriately and is then sent to the correct conveyor or carousel.
"As part of the system, the permanent bag tag can unlock efficiencies throughout the check-in and sortation process," Fanet states, "which will not only improve the accuracy of luggage handling, but speed passenger processing at the gate, and ultimately improve travelers' experience." Qantas would not reveal the extent to which it may have reduced passenger wait times, or increased sortation accuracy and efficiency.
"ICM Airport Technics Australia has learned a huge amount from this deployment," Dinkelmann says. "We have made a number of software improvements to the [automated baggage-handling system] since the Q Bag Tag system first went live in July 2010. There were many challenges in the Qantas NGCI project, because many changes were made to many airport systems all around Australia." One such change involved the upgrading of the airport's existing baggage-handling equipment to enable the reading of RFID. The biggest challenge facing the automated bag-drop system was to design a product able to meet the requirements of Qantas' Customer Experience team, which is charged with identifying and meeting the comfort and convenience needs of Qantas' passengers.
"They wanted a product that was open and inviting to promote passenger flow through the departures hall," Dinkelmann states. "We had to design a product that was able to read the bag's Q Tag on the scale conveyor, which is totally open, without reading other RFID tags [on bags not placed on the belt]. This was a huge technical challenge." ICM Airport Technics and Tagsys custom-designed the reader, antennas and middleware that controlled the RFID reading and writing, in order to ensure there were no stray reads at any airport installations.
In addition, Tagsys and ICM Airport Technics report that two unnamed European airports have expressed interest in their Permanent Bag Tag system. The PBT tag will be made available in 2012, the companies add, with retail pricing dependent on the company providing the tags to passengers.
Upon first arriving at the ICM Self-Service Bag Drop—after obtaining a boarding pass via a home computer or a smartphone—a passenger can place his or her suitcase, with a Q Bag Tag attached to its handle, on a weigh-scale conveyor belt. A reader
built into the conveyor reads the bag tag's unique ID number. The traveler then follows prompts on a touch screen connected to the RFID-enabled conveyor, indicating the type of baggage that he or she is checking in—for example, a suitcase or an oversized item. The customer then places the bag on the scale conveyor belt, which will weigh the luggage while an RFID reader captures its tag's unique ID number. If the baggage is overweight, the passenger is given the option to pay an extra fee, or to remove items from the bags in order to reduce the weight.
The system activates the reusable Q Bag Tag, says Rainer Dinkelmann, ICM Airport Technics' software development and IT manager, writing flight and final-destination data directly onto the Q Bag Tag's RFID inlay. The conveyor then carries the luggage into the baggage-handling system (BHS), where it is sorted and screened by means of RFID.
If a bag is too small, or soft, it will need to be placed in a hard plastic tub, equipped with a Tagsys ultrahigh-frequency
) RFID tag
with a unique ID indicating its status as a Qantas tub. Once the system detects a tub tag ID, it automatically deducts the tub's weight.