How should airlines get passengers through airports with minimal delay? One possibility is to provide loads of capacity. There are two ways to do that. One is hire lots of staff or put out lots of kiosks. That requires both money and space. The Wall Street Journal reports (The Trump Card at Check-In, Dec 29) that Qantas has found an alternative way to expand check-in capacity on its domestic routes: Use technology to greatly reduce the processing time so the same number of kiosks can process far more customers. This graphic summarizes their revised process.
Radio-frequency ID cards (RFID) chips are key to making this work.
The system, built around radio-frequency ID cards (RFID), is similar to toll tags used on highways and bridges. Top-level frequent fliers get an ID card that is flashed at a kiosk in the ticketing area. In seconds, the system finds the reservation for that day, assigns a seat based on personal preferences if one wasn’t pre-selected and checks the passenger in. When everything is good to go, a beacon illuminates.
To check luggage, the passenger goes to a baggage drop point, flashes the frequent-flier card in front of a reader and drops luggage on a baggage belt. The bag is weighed, and lasers measure its dimensions to make sure it complies with limits.
Top-level frequent fliers have heavy-duty RFID tags called “Q Bag Tags” for their bags that replace paper luggage tags. The technology reads the bag’s “identity” as it moves from luggage belts to carts to airport tarmacs. This ensures luggage gets loaded on the same flight as its owner. Other travelers get a paper tag for their bag with an imbedded RFID chip.
Development of the system began several years ago. Qantas was running out of room at its large domestic terminal in Sydney and needed to come up with something new to reduce frequent backups at counters. The airline studied customer habits and worked on finding ways to eliminate lines. The conclusion: eliminate the “pain points” in the airport, such as checking in, checking bags and lining up to board, Ms. Bulkin said.
The carrier decided to invest in technology rather than adding floor space. With kiosks positioned in four V-shaped patterns, it’s almost impossible for travelers to bunch up in a long line. There’s still an old-fashioned check-in counter, but most of the baggage drop points are self service.
From a consumer’s point of view, this is clearly very attractive. It is also an interesting application for RFID. For a time, there was a lot of talk about how RFID was going to change everything. Excuse me, I should say EVERYTHING. That hasn’t really happened. (For my colleague Sunil Chopra’s thoughts on why RFID has had a more limited impact, see here.) What’s nice about this application is that the cost of the chips for frequent fliers should not be too much of an issue. They get a permanent luggage tag which gets used over an over. Those without frequent flier status can buy a tag for $50 (Australian). For passengers without permanent tags, they are likely to be charged for checking a bag and that should be enough to cover the cost of the chip in the paper tag.
So will this come to the US? I am not sure. For one, US airlines have no money. Beyond that, the size of the network might matter since one needs a hardware investment in each sizable airport. Poking around the Qantas website, it seems that they have this system at about 50 airports. Southwest flies to 72 airports, so they could perhaps think of something like this. Airlines with commuter arms that go to smaller cities may have a harder time. They would either need to invest in each smaller city or have to run two sets of processes at their hubs, one for bags from large cities with RFID tags and one from smaller burgs with conventional tags.