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No longer grounded? RFID takes flight in Las Vegas

McCarran International Airport in Las Vegas is replacing optical baggage-scanning equipment with a system that uses RFID.

McCarran International Airport in Las Vegas is replacing optical baggage-scanning equipment with a system that uses RFID (Radio Frequency Identification) tags.

If the $125 million project takes flight this year, McCarran would become the first U.S. airport to deploy RFID tags. Samuel Ingalls, McCarran's information services manager, says the move is prompted by two factors: Improving airline security and cutting down on lost or misrouted bags.

McCarran handles about 60,000 pieces of luggage each day, making it one of the busiest U.S. airports. Even though optical scanners provide accurate readings about 90% of the time, employees must still physically inspect about 6,000 bags. "That's a three-mile-long line of bags if they were placed end to end," says Ingalls.

The federal Transportation Security Administration (TSA), formed in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, requires all baggage to be screened for explosives, making it more likely that other airports eventually will implement RFID technologies.

At McCarran, RFID tags produced accurate readings nearly of about 99.8% of the time during a pilot program, Ingalls said. Semiconductor chips embedded in the tags enable airport officials to quickly track where a bag is at any given time, as well as where it's been, and where it's supposed to go.

The RFID tags, which are affixed to passenger luggage during check-in, contain a unique identifying number. Each ID number corresponds to specific information about individual airline passengers that is contained in an Oracle database. The tags are read by antennae that have been retrofitted to the conveyor system, which moves luggage through the airport's baggage-handling system.

The RFID system does not apply to carry-on baggage, which is individually screened as passengers enter airport terminals.

Individual airlines at McCarran don't screen luggage. That task falls to TSA agents, who screen luggage in the ticketing lobby, from where it is manually delivered to individual airlines. "This will (return) to the scenario of days gone by: A customer walks up to the ticket counter, checks in his luggage, and the airline agent puts bags on conveyor belt that delivers them to baggage makeup," said Ingalls.

The Clark County Department of Aviation, which runs McCarran, tapped Columbia, Md.-based Matrics Inc. to supply up to 100 million RFID tags as part of a five-year $20 million contract. The company provides RFID systems that operate in the UHF radio spectrum. Matrics will supply about 20 million RFID tags this year, Ingalls said.

"[The McCarran project] is the largest order for operational RFID in history, and frankly it's the type of transaction needed for the entire aviation industry to start using RFID," says John Shoemaker, vice president of business development at Matrics.

McCarran's move to RFID has brought mixed reviews from analysts. "From a baggage-handling perspective, one advantage is the ability to move bags quicker from check-in time to actually getting them on a plane. The other (advantage) is knowing where they've been from the time they're turned in until the time they're placed on a plane," says Gene Alvarez, vice president for research services at Stamford, Conn.-based META Group.

The security benefits of RFID technology are overblown though, says Jeff Woods, an analyst with Gartner Group, also based in Stamford. "I wouldn't be surprised if, in a year, there wasn't any depth to the claims of RFID security in airports," he says, noting recent studies by the international shipping industry failed to show demonstrate significant RFID-driven security improvements.

RFID was first used in 1959 by the airline industry for long-range transponders for friend-or-foe systems. "It's much more mainstream than people think," says Marc Linster, chief technology officer for Avicon, a Waltham, Mass.-based company that helps develop supply-chain strategies.

However, the higher cost of manufacturing RFID chips limited their use to a few specialized applications. Access badges, for example, contain RFID tags that when scanned open security gates or permit access to secure buildings. RFID transponders are used by motorists for automated toll collection on highways.

Delta Airlines began testing use of RFID tags on passenger luggage last year. Moreover, RFID is expected to gain acceptance in managing large far-flung supply chains. Retailer Wal-Mart Stores Inc. has given its top 100 suppliers until 2005 to begin using RFID to track inventory at the pallet and case levels. That is the same year the U.S. Department of Defense will require RFID adoption by its suppliers.

About the author: Garry Kranz is a freelance business and technology writer in Richmond, Va.

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