Wireless aims high; skills in demand

Technology tapped for more airport LANs

Air France has ambitious plans beginning next month to deploy wireless LANs at 12 French airports and to add applications to its first wireless LAN here at Charles de Gaulle Airport.

Michel Lacoste, Air France's wireless systems engineer for all 155 airports it serves worldwide, said the carrier will launch its second wireless LAN operational next month at the country's Strasbourg airport. These LANs, which will support aircraft maintenance and other ground operations, will provide Ethernet-like connectivity to PCs mounted in support vehicles.

FedEx Corp. has also started a pilot test of wireless LANs to support aircraft maintenance and ramp operations, said Jimmy Burk, the Memphis-based company's vice president of IT. "The payback is huge" in extending high-speed network connections to mechanics, who can use the wireless LAN to tap into a remote database to help with repairs, he said.

Air France, based at Charles de Gaulle, installed here what some call the world's largest wireless LAN, with 160 access points. It's designed to help ground crews match bags loaded on an airplane with the passengers aboard. Air France has already achieved more quickly dispatched flights.

The baggage-matching requirement, established by civil aviation authorities after Libyan agent Abdel Baset Ali Mohmed Al-Megrahi planted a bomb on a TWA plane that then crashed in Lockerbie, Scotland in 1988, is designed to prevent unaccompanied bags that could contain a bomb from being loaded on a flight.

In the past, if the carrier couldn't get a match between bags and passengers, it had to unload all the bags—which could take two hours or more.

Today, baggage handlers using handheld scanners send data from a bag's bar code over the wireless LAN installed by Symbol Technologies Inc. in Holtsville, N.Y., for correlation with manifests housed on the Air France mainframe. The wireless scanning system also makes it easier to locate a bag in the cargo hold.

Lacoste said Air France has started to study adding applications to the Charles de Gaulle LAN to support ground vehicle PCs and voice over IP wireless phones to replace the 1,500 mobile radios the carrier currently uses at the airport.

To host those applications, Lacoste said, Air France is also studying whether it would need to switch its wireless LAN protocol from the IEEE 802.11 standard, which provides throughput of 2M bit/ sec. at long distances, to the new industry standard 802.11B, which provides 10M bit/sec. but has a shorter range.

Gemma Paulo, an analyst at Cahners In-Stat Group in Scottsdale, Ariz., said that airport wireless LANs "are one of the fastest-growing segments of the wireless LAN industry" and that it makes sense to piggyback applications, such as voice over IP. But, she added, Air France needs to look at the payback it could expect from a switch from radios, since "the handsets are expensive, between $500 and $700 each."

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Air France:

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Plans to install wireless LANs at 12 airports during the next three to four years.
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Will use wireless LANs to provide Ethernet-like connectivity to mechanics and support vehicles.
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Currently operates a 160-node wireless LAN at Charles de Gaulle Airport in Paris to support its bag-matching system.
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Is studying adding applications to the Paris LAN, including voice over IP wireless phones.

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