A leash for luggage? SFO OKs radio tags

While stopping short of a promise to put an end to lost luggage, airport officials Tuesday approved a test run of new technology aimed at significantly reducing the number of lost bags.

Except for an embedded Radio Frequency Identification chip, passengers checking in won’t be able to tell the difference between the new baggage tags and the ubiquitous paper barcode tags in use, officials said.

The technology, known as Radio Frequency Identification, was approved Tuesday by the Airport Commission for a six-month trial this spring on passengers’ bags flying on Korean Air and Asiana Airlines between San Francisco and Incheon International Airport in Seoul, South Korea. The chip, similar to those used in FasTrak or to track inventory in stores and libraries, will carry each passenger’s name, the date, flight itinerary and other information, said Gerry Alley, project manager for SFO.

RFID is expected to be more accurate, with luggage tag read rates of about 99 percent, than traditional barcode systems, with read rates of about 90 percent historically, officials said. “The more accurate reading of tags, the more accurately you can sort and track bags, the fewer lost bags you have,” Alley said.

An estimated 3.6 million pieces of luggage were lost by airlines domestically last year, according to the Aviation Consumer Protection Division of the Department of Transportation. At a cost of more than $100 per bag, the use of RFID could add up to major savings, about $760 million a year if implemented worldwide, according to the International Air Transport Association, an air industry trade organization pushing RFID.

While RFID is accurate, officials Tuesday warned against concluding that lost luggage would be a thing of the past. “There is always the human factor,” Alley said.

The trial will affect about 250 passengers on seven to 10 flights a week departing SFO, Alley said. The details are still being hammered out, but the cost of equipment and baggage tags, estimated at more that $500,000 at SFO, will be picked up by the industry, Deputy Airport Director Tryg McCoy said.

In spite of the apparent benefits, privacy advocates at the Electronic Frontier Foundation said RFID tagging raises questions about personal privacy. “Once you let go of your luggage, you have no idea what they’re doing with it,” said Lee Tien, EFF senior staff attorney.

While he isn’t opposed to simply tracking luggage, attaching a chip with programmable data makes it easier for police and security personnel to target specific people or groups for closer inspection, Tien said. “When you combine that [technology] with various watch lists and certain people being singled out, then that raises concerns,” Tien said.

While SFO has previously tested RFID for security purposes, in conjunction with the Transportation Safety Administration that is not part of the current proposal, Alley said.

ecarpenter@examiner.com

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