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.
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.
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]