Delta Takes My Advice, Adds RFID Tracking to Baggage

They say it’s a good idea to have a lot of news to break if you host a media day, and Delta certainly took that to heart. I’ve written about the C-Series order and the CLEAR partnership already, but now I want to talk about what might be the most interesting of all. Delta is going to start using RFID tracking for baggage. This is a great idea, and it shows how far we’ve come in this industry in just the last decade.

RFID tracking is such a great idea, I went and submitted it to Delta 9 years ago almost to the day on their short-lived “Change” website. Do I think this was somehow a catalyst for Delta to do this now? Yeah, right. There is absolutely no chance of that. I honestly only stumbled across that very old post when I was searching to see if I had even written about RFID before and thought it was an amusing coincidence.

What I said at the time was that “Though expensive, it could be a great differentiator for them because it could allow customers to get real time updates on the location of their bags on a website.” And that is very true. Back in 2007 the idea that an airline could do something expensive just to please a passenger was laughable. The fact that it’s possible today shows that this is a different industry.

Several airlines have tackled bag-tracking and notification in one way or another. Bags have long been affixed with tags that have barcodes with the id number encoded. United and Northwest scanned bags at planeside. US Airways added that in 2009. Back in 2011, Delta turned on real-time tracking for customers to follow their bags. US Airways was an early-adopter of that as well.

Real-time tracking is great, but it also depends on the tracking/scanning being reliable. Scanning bar codes isn’t the best way to do it. RFID is, and airlines have known this for a long time. Delta even did a test back in 2003, but it was just too expensive.

RFID stands for Radio-Frequency Identification. The basic idea is to use radio waves to track an object. Unlike barcodes, RFID doesn’t require the scanner being properly lined up to successfully get a reading. That means there is a higher success rate when it comes to accuracy. Delta just has to embed a chip in each bag tag it prints, but you’ll never notice it since it’ll look like a regular tag.

Delta RFID Chip

This isn’t the first time an airline has used RFID, but it’s usually for permanent bag tags. Air New Zealand does this for frequent fliers. Qantas and Alaska do as well. But RFID chips in every bag tag that’s just going to be thrown away? That’s a bigger undertaking.

This isn’t a small investment. Delta has poured $50 million into buying thousands of bag tag printers and scanners at every station in addition to infrastructure in its biggest airports. The bag tags with chips embedded in them also will cost more than existing tags on an ongoing basis. Sure RFID costs have come down over time, but with 120 million bags checked a year, even a penny per tag will add over a million dollars in cost each year.

As part of this, Delta has invested in scanners on bag loaders at its 84 biggest airports. In those places, if a bag is loaded correctly, a green light goes off. If it’s not going to the right place, the belt stops and it flashes red so someone can take it where it should be going.

Delta RFID Bag Loader

The primary benefit to all of this is a reduction in mishandled bags. Right now, barcode scanning is about 97 to 98 percent accurate, and it requires a someone to hold the scanner planeside. This new system is showing to be 99.9 percent accurate.

It’s also somewhat quicker, and it’ll be better in irregular operations situations. Let’s say Delta needs to pull someone’s bag off a flight. Instead of having to go through and scan each tag, it can now use an RFID scanner to locate the bag more quickly.

This system isn’t cheap, but it has a real customer benefit. Kudos to Delta for investing in this.

[Images via Delta]

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20 Comments on "Delta Takes My Advice, Adds RFID Tracking to Baggage"

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JMR
Guest

I think this is the real reason, quoting you: ‘The primary benefit to all of this is a reduction in mishandled bags.’ Less mishandled bag = less costs. That it’s beneficial for Delta’s customers, seems a side-effect to me.

Nevertheless pretty cool that they’re finally implementing it!

Oliver
Guest

I’d argue tha fewer mishandled bags is a big benefit for Delta customers as well.

JMR
Guest

Of course it is! But like I said: a side-effect. If it wouldn’t save them tons of cash, they wouldn’t implement it.

Oliver
Guest

I’d say the goals of the airline and passengers are for once aligned here. No one wins when bags are lost or delayed,

Dan
Guest

Mishandled bags is a DOT trackable statistic, so I’d have to agree that that is likely the driving force, and not “just for the customers” as Brett implies. Never mind that reducing mishandled bags reduces cost.

Secondary benefit = “somewhat faster loading times” = faster turn times, which is also a form of cost reduction.

I’m going to play cynic and have to disagree with Brett’s characterization that this is primarily for the customers.

James S
Guest
Good move by Delta. The airlines don’t have control over a lot of the things that make flying unpleasant, but this is one area where they do. When it comes to checked baggage, if they can a.) reduce the number of mishandled bags (which things like RFID help do) and b.) deliver baggage faster (which 20-minute bag guarantees help do), then people will feel they’re getting value for money when they check bags. More checked bags = fewer carryon bags = faster boarding. More checked bags = fewer carryon bags = faster security screening. Since boarding and security are probably… Read more »
christophe.bottega
Member

Happy to see that the email is back to allowing to read the whole post

David SF eastbay
Member

Sounds like now it will be easier to sue Delta if they loose a bag if it had one of these RFID tags.

Roughneck
Guest

I hate to be a grammar nazi, but I’m amazed at the lack of education/knowledge on common words. The above comment should have used the word “lose” not “loose”. There’s a huge difference between the meaning of the two words.

David SF eastbay
Member

Oh well what can I say, the internet is full of typos and people typing quickly or using devices with that auto correct feature and not noticing an incorrect word might have been used. And like with this site, once you post your comment you can’t correct it. And I do know the difference and meaning of the words lose and loose.

Anonymous
Member

Interesting – Brett, you may recall we communicated on this over 2 years ago, and one of the main difficulties at the time was to persuade airline(s) to buy in to the idea. Now that Alaska and DL are ‘seeing the light’ I think the adoption of these tags will speed up. Good to see! And, it opens up lots more opportunities also!

Adam
Guest

Cost, that’s what. RFID costs have come down dramatically.

However, IROP recovery has yet to be seen, especially with those automatic belt loaders. If someone in ACS doesn’t reissue the ticket properly, the bag won’t show the right path, and then it will just cause the ramp, in frustration, to just bypass the belt loader and toss it in the bin vs having it stop every 10 seconds. I hope that there is an “Okay, show the scan, but don’t turn off the belt” keyswitch or something.

Ron
Guest

From Delta’s Children Traveling Alone page: “Unaccompanied Minor Tracking. Delta implemented new barcoded wristbands that will be scanned at important points of our Unaccompanied Minor’s journey.” Perhaps they should convert these to RFID as well :-)

Josh G
Member
Brett, Unless I missed something I am pretty sure AS is just the decades old barcode, although certain stations have self-tagging printed from self service kiosks and certain stations support the print at home (fold twice) barcode style tags in the reusable plastic sleeves. I recall reading about an upcoming pilot for RFID at AS but nothing currently available that I’m aware of. Did they try this in the 2005-2008 timeframe that the “Airport of the Future” hybrid self severe/agent assisted counter design debuted? QF definitely has reusable RFIDs for their FFs, and they also have RFID towers that FFs… Read more »
Josh G
Member

And now I clicked the link and saw. My apologies.

JB
Member

Unless it costs more than $25/bag, they aren’t going to lose any money on this technology!

christophe.bottega
Member

Since I’m wiling to bet that more than half of the checked bags travel for “free” (through FF status, co branded credit card and/or part of an international itinerary), … I certainly hope for thir P&L that it costs a lot less than that !…

ORDFlyer312
Member

This is so awesome – RFID has gone in so many different directions. My firm built a system that uses RFID for automated guest recognition of automobiles (inventory and customer) at dealerships. It’s a very reliable technology and produces amazing results. Good move Delta… My United buddies have told me United has tested this as well and may move forward after seeing how well it works with Delta.

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