NextFEST: Symbol Technologies may let me keep my shoes.

“They that can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety.” – Benjamin Franklin

I don’t know about you, but I refuse to travel by plane until the airlines, the government or Somebody makes it possible to get through the airport without being made to feel like one just ran a gauntlet. I’m not a criminal and I refuse to be treated like one. I’ve never even gotten a traffic ticket! How is having an ordinary citizen – trying to board a plane – be forced to remove their shoes a solution? How is robbing passengers of their toothpaste, shampoo or deodorant a blow for freedom and safety? Benjamin Franklin also said: “Never confuse motion with action.” It seems to me that gerbil-like motion is what the government has been doing for the last several years. What we need is intelligent, well thought-out Action, not lame fear tactics.
Call me crazy, but in my view you arrest criminals BEFORE they show up at the airport. It IS possible as we saw this past summer in England. The problem is that this is a complex issue requiring different levels of solutions. And certainly serious investigations and deductive work is vital and can not be replaced. So – as this is a gadget site – how can technology help? While I was visiting NextFEST I interviewed Symbol Technologies which is offering a solution for verifying the identity of passengers as they are about to board a plane. Symbol Technologies was founded in 1975 and has years of experience with such devices as handheld laser bar code scanners and RFID technology.


For those readers unfamiliar with RFID (Radio Frequency Identification), lets review the concept. Take an object like a label, a passport, a boarding pass, a baggage check and put a microchip on it which has about 2KB of data – ususally just a big honkin’ number. The number can be read using radio waves. But you need a “reader” or scanner that can communicate with the “tag” or “transponder”, as the chip is often called. Tags can be Active or Passive. Active tags – like those used in EasyPass devices – need batteries to transmit signals to the reader increasing the range that the information can be read. Passive tags like what one would use in a boarding pass or passport would need to be within a few feet from the reader before the data can be accessed. For those who are concerned about someone reading their tag number surreptitiously, be aware that radio waves are absorbed by water at ultra-high frequencies and if your passport or boarding pass is in your pocket it’s already right next to a large source of water. Namely, your body. Plus, as a New Yorker my personal “radar” would send out an alarm if someone stood next to me pointing an expensive Reader at my pockets. This would initiate a good swift kick from me, in any case. Plus, as the only information on a tag is a large number, unless someone has the database of those numbers it’s useless and meaningless. The point of the tag is to authenticate that YOU, Joe Blow, have this boarding pass and that it is connected to your photo. It only says, “yes, this is in fact, Joe Blow”. Once you and your baggage get on the plane, travel to your destination, and get off the plane, the number is irrelevant.

RFID can be used in a variety of situations to help people. Belgium is working on an “RFID-equipped Victim Tracking and Tracing System” (ViTTS). The procedure is that in a situation where there are disaster victims, medical personal will attach tags to each patient with relevant information about their injury, who they are, etc. This way each injured person can be properly tracked to insure they get what they need throughout their convalence. Family members will quickly be able to know which hospital their injured relative was sent to. This system is a way to perform efficient triage in the 21st century. RFID is also used to Authenticate that the drugs (whole, fresh, intact, not cut) leaving the “factory” are the same drugs that arrive where they can be sold and used by customers. As Martha Stuart might say, RFID, “It’s a good thing”.

RFID at the Airport

So, let’s return to the airport. Right now Las Vegas McCarran International Airport is using an RFID Baggage Tagging System. RFID tags are printed and attached at the ticket counter. They track all passenger bags through explosive detection and screening equipment and send each bag onto the correct plane. So, is this effective? RFID Journal had an article in which representatives from McCarran Airport responded, “We handle 65,000 to 70,000 bags per day,” says Randall H. Walker, the airport’s director of aviation. “They are routed to a centralized screening node before they are redistributed to the airlines. We needed a very high degree of accuracy to make sure we send each bag back to the right airline and not interfere with their ability to get the bags into the airline system.” The integrator partner, Swanson Rink, is working directly with McCarran. They told RFID Journal that “We’re seeing [RFID] read accuracy rates on the order of 99.5 percent,” says William Gibbs, Swanson Rink’s senior mechanical engineer and the controls engineer for the McCarran project.

Asiana Airlines in Korea has been using Symbol’s RFID system for Baggage Tracking. The press release reports, “Symbol’s high performance AR400 RFID reader and RFID baggage tags are enabling Asiana Airlines to manage security issues such as passengers traveling with prohibited items including drugs or weapons. Symbol’s RFID solution is also enabling Asiana Airlines to significantly improve the efficiency of its baggage tracking and monitoring systems by 20 percent by replacing existing bar code systems with RFID readers and tags. By providing visibility for baggage track and trace with RFID tags that can be read with near 100 percent accuracy, Asiana Airlines will be able to improve airline operations by reducing costs, improving customer satisfaction, and providing a means for more security in baggage handling with an audit trail and reporting system.”

“Symbol’s RFID solutions for baggage tracking and monitoring systems offer high performance read rates and provide functionality that will enable us to extend services to other applicable areas of our business,” said Ebong Jung, project manager, Asiana IDT, a subsidiary company of Asiana Airlines. Asiana Airlines has finished its pilot project and will now extend the deployment of Symbol’s RFID solutions to all of its baggage tracking and monitoring systems from check-in to collecting baggage at Cheju International Airport, Cheongju Airport, Gimpo Airport, Kwangju Airport, Pusan International Airport, and Taegu Airport.”This is one of the first implementations of this type in Korea and we are very pleased with the performance of Symbol’s RFID solutions and the cooperation and support that we have received from Symbol in order to make this project a success and a showcase for the aviation industry in Korea,” said Dave Han, CEO of HiTrax Co., Ltd.

And in case you don’t understand why baggage handling is important (if you’ve ever lost your bag, I don’t have to say a thing), here’s some stats:
According to a report released March 21 by SITA, a software company for the airline industry, more than 30 million pieces of baggage were mishandled around the world in 2005, costing airlines $2.5 billion. Statistics gathered by the U.S. Department of Transportation says Southwest reported 383,240 mishandled bags in 2005, a 27 percent increase from the previous year while passenger traffic only increased 8 percent. Using an industry standard economic model that places the cost of each mishandled bag at an average of $87.50 — customer service, manpower to track and find the bag, reship the bag, etc. — it could have cost Southwest $33.5 million last year alone.

Now, believe it or not, for an airline moving baggage is, eh, similar to moving passengers. Ok, people have additional needs and they generally are more ambulatory, however Airlines are still taking “object A” and moving it from Here to There. Don’t take offense, I like to kid. Seriously, if an airline can take great care in getting the vast majority of bags to their destinations using RFID, imagine how things may improve if that technology is used for passengers.

Click the thumbnail picture to the left to see an example of what an RFID boarding pass could look like. It would have the usual information plus a tag which will be associated with you and your baggage.

Here’s how it would work. A passenger gets his face scanned at the check-in kiosk while he’s getting his boarding pass printed out – and the RFID data is recorded in the database with that face. The thumbnail picture (click on it to see the larger version) shows the software called Tetragate. It was created by Symbol’s partner, epcSolutions and works with the RFID hardware. At the moment the plan is that the airline holds the database. But it’s temporary. It’s not needed once the passengers are safely on their way. Photos and information would be deleted from the system after the flight.
When the passenger is ready to board she just walks through the RFID gate which reads her boarding pass. Gets on plane…….arrives at destination. Picks up baggage which has happily arrived at the same time.

Sounds good to me. No fuss, no muss and no having to take my freaking shoes off.

Personally, I can’t wait for the airlines to start treating passangers like people again. Maybe use an additionl system where people can get themselves placed on a “Trusted Travelers” list (you know, like people who have never gotten a traffic ticket) so that they can just move along an airport without being molested – Ever. There should be a huge distance between criminals and law-abiding citizens.

“When even one American – who has done nothing wrong – is forced by fear to shut his mind and close his mouth, then all Americans are in peril. ” – Harry S. Truman

Written by Cecilia