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When will next-gen technology solve some of our age-old problems?

Posted by Mark Jolley

August 8, 2018 at 3:24 AM

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On a recent trip to Johannesburg, stranded on the runway hearing the crushing words “delay”, I couldn’t quite get my head round why, in this day and age, with incredible intelligence and technology at our disposal we are still facing frustrations that were common 10 or even 20 years ago. We encounter problems or inconveniences everyday that are seemingly simple to solve, yet there often aren’t solutions on the market. Is this due to lack of innovation, funds or demand perhaps? Some solutions seem glaringly obvious to me.

The traveller experience

The customer experience as a traveller has improved vastly in the last decade, that’s for sure. Finding and booking flights is pretty simple, we can check-in online, choose our seats and meals in advance, flash a print-at-home QR code instead of physical tickets, immediately spot which car parks have spaces, or simply command an Uber within minutes without needing to book or queue for a taxi. Airport security has been greatly enhanced for obvious reasons too. Yet stuck on the tarmac waiting to take off to another continent, my fellow passengers and I endured almost a three hour delay. That’s a long time to be sat bored on a static aircraft, especially when we have become accustomed to not waiting long for anything anymore.

So what were we waiting for? Was there an engine malfunction? Was the pilot held up? No. Allegedly there was a suitcase on-board that shouldn't have been, and it needed to be removed. But first of all, it had to be located, to confirm that it was actually on-board. What struck me as absurd was that the baggage handlers for that airline didn’t actually know for sure it was in the hold. There was no way of telling without taking every bag off and scanning every single barcode label. On a typical flight to Johannesburg there are hundreds of suitcases and bags in the hold to sift through, as you can imagine.

Designers have developed a smart hairbrush connected to an app to analyse your brushing stroke and a hands-free umbrella powered by a drone using GPS but we cant yet track airline baggage efficiently. According to reports, airlines mishandled more than 21 million bags in 2016, costing them more than $2 billion (source: RFID Journal). For the traveller who arrives at their destination or connection to discover they won’t be reunited with their luggage for an undeterminable period (perhaps never), it can destroy a holiday or business trip emotionally and financially. The airline also faces the huge cost of customer dissatisfaction.

Piloting RFID for flight baggage

With an RFID tag on all baggage, handlers would know instantly if the bag in question had passed through certain checkpoints and made it onto the plane, and whereabouts in the hold it was nestled. I’m amazed that this hasn’t been piloted before now, but it is finally on the horizon with the International Air Transport Association (IATA) voting at its recent general meeting to develop a standard within one year for using RFID to track luggage. The aim is to start rolling out the technology across the globe in 2020 with end-to-end tracking so that any flaws can be identified and rectified. That’s promising. SITA/IATA predict that RFID capabilities can be deployed for as little as US$0.1 per passenger (on average) while generating expected savings of more than US$0.2 per passenger, plus increased customer satisfaction of course. Over seven years the global deployment of RFID for baggage tracking can enable the air transport industry to save more than $3 billion.

Some airlines are already soaring ahead. Hats off to Delta, the first to introduce RFID tracking some 24 months ago, achieving a 99% success rate. Travellers can even track and verify their luggage is on-board via the airline’s app. Sensors and hand-held readers track the bags at various checkpoints, with the final scan as it enters the hold. Their aim “to reliably deliver every bag on every flight" is ambitious considering how long efficient baggage tracking has taken to come to fruition, but it’s also completely plausible in this era of next-gen tech. In my opinion this is long overdue and every airline needs to follow suit soon in line with IATA’s statement.

Continuing to ponder the airport/airline scenario, there are many ideas that I am sure would appeal to many and improve the traveller experience. A passport control traffic light system would be handy to see real-time queuing updates. If the queue is long you might decide to grab a coffee first and join the queue when it’s cleared. If waiting time is short, you can press on. This is a simple idea but makes the customer experience that little bit calmer, enjoyable and stress-free. I can see how augmented reality apps will eventually penetrate airports so that travellers can choose what they want to do (check-in/eat/find car rental) and be navigated to the right place, with pop-up messages along the way serving useful offers or reminders about flight departures, delays and where your luggage is heading.

What age-old situations have you encountered that seem fairly simple to solve with all the disruptive tech at our disposal like Bluetooth, Wi-Fi, GPS, automation, augmented reality, data, AI, robots, RFID and 3D printing?

Zebra is a leader in RFID and Asset Tracking solutions, for more information see www.zebra.com.

(IATA/SITA and Delta source: RFID Journal online and www.IATA.org)

Topics: EMEA