Las Vegas airport to implement RFID baggage-tag system

The first phase of the airportwide system is expected to be in use by May

McCarran International Airport in Las Vegas is implementing a baggage-tracking system that will use radio frequency identification (RFID) bag tags from Matrics Inc. to improve customer safety. The decision to implement the tracking system makes McCarran one of the first airports to use the RFID technology airportwide.

As part of the deal, Columbia, Md.-based Matrics will supply the airport with 100 million passive, nonbattery, disposable 900-MHz RFID tags over a five-year period for $25 million, or 25 cents per tag, according to John Shoemaker, vice president of business development at Matrics.

The entire project is expected to cost $125 million, with $94 million of that amount being paid for by the Transportation Security Administration (TSA), said Samuel Ingalls, the airport's information systems manager. The airport will pick up the rest of the cost.

The TSA is partially funding similar projects at other airports, including Denver International Airport and Los Angeles International Airport. Florida's Jacksonville International Airport has already implemented an airportwide in-line screening system for checked baggage but has only partially implemented an RFID tracking system.

The first phase of McCarran's new system, expected to be operational in May 2004, will automatically track all checked-in passenger bags through in-line explosive detection and screening equipment, according to Shoemaker. This phase will include use of a facility that screens off-site baggage coming from hotels and car rental companies, as well as two other screening facilities to handle baggage checked in at the airport's main terminal, Ingalls said. Travelers check in about 60,000 bags a day at McCarran.

Shoemaker said the first phase of the project will involve five airlines and 38% to 40% of airport travelers.

The process starts at the ticket counter or curbside check-in, where a regular baggage tag with an RFID chip and antenna imbedded in it will be printed out and attached to each bag, he said. Each tag will carry a unique identifier and will be read while the bag is transported on conveyors through the appropriate explosive-screening machine and onto the specific plane. If the bag doesn't clear the explosive-screening machine, it will be sent to a special facility to be checked by hand.

Information from the tags is passed to FKI Logistex's software controls. FKI, based in Danville, Ky., is providing the systems architecture and integration.

Shoemaker stressed the tags' 99.8% accuracy and noted that they can be tracked from a distance of up to 30 feet. Bar-code tags now commonly used must be in close proximity to a reader.

The use of RFID tags has been gaining in popularity this year as a supply chain management tool. The U.S. Department of Defense last month said it will require its suppliers to use the tags on all cases and pallets by January 2005 (see story). And Wal-Mart Stores Inc. in June said it would require its top 100 suppliers to do the same thing (see story). One nagging issue has been the tags' cost. Although Matrics has promised to deliver them at 25 cents apiece, Jeff Woods, an analyst at Gartner Inc., was doubtful that it could hit that price.

"I would want to know what all the terms and conditions are before I'd say 25 cents is the going rate for tags," Woods said. "I'm skeptical of it."

Woods said, however, that he hopes Matrics can achieve that price, because doing so could speed the tags' adoption elsewhere.

Gene Alvarez, an analyst at Meta Group Inc., said he believes the RFID technology will work its way into more and more airports, not just for security but as a way to match bags with passengers and reduce delays.

Copyright © 2003 IDG Communications, Inc.

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