On Location: McCarran International Airport

We fly back into Las Vegas' McCarran International Airport as it breaks new ground with the deployment of an RFID baggage-handling system.

January 16, 2004

9 Min Read
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McCarran is uniquely suited among airports to test RFID. Because almost all its flight-information, baggage-handling and check-in systems are "common use" equipment, the airport's IT department can coordinate such a project across the entire facility. In most other U.S. airports, the airlines choose and manage their own IT (see "Air Power," April 17, 2003).

"This is much more difficult to do when you have seven different baggage-handling systems," says Dick Marchi, senior vice president for technical and environmental affairs at Airports Council International, an airport trade association. Most baggage-handling systems aren't highly automated, Marchi says, perhaps explaining why bags are so often lost.

It may also explain why the TSA (Transportation Security Administration) is footing about $95 million of the bill for McCarran's project.

Better Than Barcodes?

McCarran, like all U.S. airports, spent the past few months preparing for last month's federal deadline for screening all bags using the TSA's explosive-detection systems. It's a major shift, because bags deemed suspicious by the screening machines must be routed to a separate area to be searched. To minimize routing delays that can result in missing bags, McCarran officials envisioned an inline screening system that would keep bags moving during screening.

By April, McCarran will begin affixing stick-on RFID tags to bags. At the same time, the explosive-detection systems will be moved from the terminal floor to a separate bag-screening area. By December, the RFID chips will be embedded into bag tags. The chips and readers are being supplied by Matrics.

For McCarran, the alternative to RFID was optical scanning using barcodes. These require more labor because they are often scanned manually. RFID tags are scanned passively, as they move through conveyors. Even when conveyor systems are designed to scan barcode strips automatically, they sometimes fail if the strip is placed even a fraction of an inch off its mark. And barcode printers must be carefully maintained, especially in a dusty environment like an airport.

RFID tags are also more accurate than barcodes. Optical scanners generally have an accuracy rate of 85 percent to 89 percent, Ingalls says, compared with 99.7 percent for RFID.

This may not seem like a huge difference, but in McCarran's case, 90 percent accuracy means as many as 6,000 bags must be addressed manually every day. In this way, McCarran's RFID project represents a real test of the technology's scalability. To date, the largest airport RFID implementation handles only 5,000 bags per day, compared with 60,000 at McCarran.

Ingalls and airport director Randall Walker visited airports that use optical scanning to track baggage, and they tried to estimate the cost of employing people to manage such a system and handle misrouted bags. At current prices, RFID probably still costs more than optical scanning, even accounting for the extra labor required for barcodes. But it won't be long before RFID prices drop enough to make up the difference and then some, Ingalls says.There are other costs to consider. A lost bag can cost an airline as much as $100 to deliver it to the traveler. With RFID, a lower error rate means fewer lost bags.

The plan is not without risks. Some analysts question whether the price of RFID tags will drop significantly over the next few years, even with the backing of Wal-Mart and others.

"A hundred things can go wrong on the way to low-cost tags," says Jeff Woods, a supply-chain analyst at Gartner. Volume isn't the only barrier standing in the way of low-cost chips, he says. For tag prices to come down to 5 or 10 cents apiece, they would have to become so small that conventional chipmaking equipment could not make them. "There is a physical barrier that few people are talking about," he says.

If prices don't come down, and fast, McCarran could be forced to buy expensive tags for years to come. Indeed, Woods even wonders if McCarran is really getting the tags for 25 cents apiece. "I'd have to see the contract" to determine if there are hidden costs, he says. The best price he's seen so far is 39 cents. Another possibility is that Matrics, a venture capital-backed company, is taking a loss on the chips to seed the market, he says.

For their part, McCarran and Matrics stand behind the price figures and say there are no hidden costs in the contract. McCarran officials say they're confident that RFID prices will drop considerably.Today, each airline operating at McCarran uses a separate bag-tracking system. Some use barcodes, and others use an entirely manual tracking procedure.

Because RFID provides a nearly real-time view of where bags are in the system, it also simplifies the rerouting of bags when flights are delayed or other exceptions occur, Marchi says. He expects RFID baggage systems to take hold more quickly in Europe and Asia than in the United States, largely because overseas airports generally control the information systems on behalf of their airline tenants, much like McCarran does in Las Vegas. Even so, Delta Air Lines and Southwest Airlines are both said to be looking closely at RFID technology for use in airports where they control their own IT systems, Marchi says.

Airport operators are no doubt looking forward to the day when all airports use RFID. When that happens, a bag could be tracked across its entire journey, from drop-off to transfer to pickup. But it could take 20 years for RFID to reach that critical mass.

In September, the airport completed a three-month, three-stage upgrade to a Gigabit Ethernet network. First, the airport's administrative office systems, including e-mail, were migrated to the network. Then came the operational systems, such as reservations, flight displays and check-in kiosks, followed by the links that connect the airlines' host mainframe systems to the airport network.

About 12 hours after the second phase was completed in September, network utilization dropped from 35 percent to 9 percent. The extra capacity gives McCarran the headroom to add a variety of multimedia applications--most important, a new video surveillance system. The TSA initially wanted to run video surveillance over a separate network operated by the feds, but McCarran managed to convince the agency that it could run over the existing airport network.

The network upgrade was vital. Even before those applications are deployed, the added network speed--from 100 Mbps to 1 Gbps--is already helping flight attendants board passengers and IT staffers do remote administration on computer equipment much faster, says David Bourgon, the airport's manager of airline systems.The cost of the upgrade has stayed on track since our last report, with the Enterasys Networks hardware running around $1.8 million and paid for through a barter deal, whereby Enterasys receives billboard space in the airport in lieu of cash. McCarran will pay cash to Enterasys for the $82,000 installation and $110,000 per year for maintenance.

Over the three-month period, McCarran's network staff chipped away at the project, tackling a portion of the airport at a time while keeping the old FDDI network running. "We had to tackle the edge devices and three or four closets per night," says Gerard Hughes, senior network analyst at McCarran. "Then we'd watch things the next day to make sure it was stable, and then tackle the next set of closets."

Some 62 closets were upgraded in all. Only during the final switchover, in late October, did IT take the network down for 15 minutes.

"It was like changing the wheel on the car as we go 60 miles per hour down the highway," Ingalls says.

There was at least one bump along the way. When the Enterasys gear was first turned on, it didn't cache routing information properly, and the memory buffers filled up in about 11 hours. (It should level out at around 12 percent, Hughes says.) A memory leak ensued, and it was "lights out at the core for about 60 seconds," Hughes remembers. An Enterasys engineer was called in to modify the operating system and routing code, and the glitch was fixed before the second phase of the upgrade was completed.McCarran has also completed Phase 1 of the deployment of its CUSS (Common Use Self-Service) kiosks. These are the self-service equivalents of the CUTE (Common Use Terminal Equipment) systems we told you about last April. They can be used to check into flights and issue boarding passes for any airline at the airport.

Many airports began to look at self-service kiosks last April, when the TSA began requiring passengers to hold an airline-issued boarding pass in their own name to get past security and on to the gates. Airport administrators worried that ticket counters would become overrun with passengers.

In the past, some 30 percent of McCarran passengers, many of them on day trips, didn't stop at a ticket counter. With the new requirement, McCarran now has to process some 15,000 more passengers per day in the ticket-counter area.

Phase 1, which cost about $1.5 million, went live in September with 25 kiosks for 12 airlines, for use only by passengers with no baggage. Those 12 airlines (there are 32 total) represent 85 percent of the traffic at McCarran. Passengers without bags can also check in at any of the six off-site self-service kiosks operating at the Las Vegas Convention Center.

The remaining airlines will join the program at a rate of one or two per month, and Hughes expects them all to offer self-service check-in by 2005. When completed, there will be 200 self-service kiosks on and off site, including in hotels on the Las Vegas strip. The network upgrade will ensure that kiosk queries take less than 60 seconds to fulfill, Hughes says.Because the terminal equipment at McCarran is already configured to work with any airline, McCarran has a unique advantage over other airports. It doesn't have to deploy as many kiosks as other airports that must use dedicated systems for each airline, and McCarran can house them all in one area.

Even with all the new projects, McCarran is holding firm on the rate it charges airlines for all shared services, including IT--$5.10 per passenger, officials say.

David Joachim is Network Computing's editor/business technology. Write to him at [email protected].

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