Wireless: That’s the ticket for the GTAA

At the beginning of April, an impressive expanse of steel, granite and glass opened its doors to travellers.

The completion of Terminal 1 at Toronto’s Pearson International Airport ended the first phase of a larger goal: to expand the airport’s capacity to 50 million passengers a year by 2015,

at a cost of $4.4 billion.

Accompanying such a throng of travellers is an enormous number of suitcases, trunks, golf clubs, skiis and other belongings that get tagged by airline staff and placed on conveyor belts. The luggage winds through an underground maze before it reaches the appropriate aircraft. Baggage handlers then slot the bags into containers, which ride in the plane’s hold.

This routine process is the same around the world.

Traditionally, Pearson has relied on a manual system of phone-call confirmations between staff, paper records, and “”bingo-sheet stickies”” to ensure each bag is properly tracked and reaches the right plane, says Gary Long, general manager of information technology at the Greater Toronto Airport Authority.

But with the introduction of a wireless scanning system at Pearson’s new terminal, the baggage handling process is about to get a lot more automated, promising cost-savings for airlines and tighter surveillance in the wake of stringent aviation security rules regarding positive bag matching.

WiFi baggage tracking

In October, the GTAA announced the selection of HP Canada to develop and manage Terminal 1’s wireless local area network (WLAN). Eventually, the network’s functions will include printing, voice-over-IP, unified messaging and point-of-sale. But the system will initially be used for baggage-tracking, reconciliation and segregation, or BTRS for short, says Angelo Santos, the system’s project manager at the GTAA.

The idea is to use WiFi-enabled barcode scanners to take an inventory of the luggage before it’s loaded onto planes, ensuring only the bags that have been checked are placed in the hold, says Victor Garcia, managing principal for the mobility program office at HP Canada. The real-time system also ensures that each bag that’s placed on a plane matches a passenger on that aircraft, he adds.

The wireless technology is especially important in the environment of heightened security following the U.S. terror attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, says Garcia. International aviation rules are strict on positive bag matching.

Any planes landing in U.S. airports, for example, must have matched luggage with each passenger prior to takeoff.

BTRS has already been piloted by major airlines and handling companies at Pearson’s Terminal 3 and is now used for larger baggage in Terminal 1.

The business case has many facets, says Santos.

For example, if a passenger is ill and decides to deplane before takeoff, the new system allows baggage handlers to locate his or her bag quickly.

Each container has a barcode that is scanned just before the bags are placed in it, automatically matching bags with container.

The loading sequence is also recorded, allowing the handler to know exactly where in the hold the container sits.

The system can also instantly alert handlers if a bag is about to be placed in the wrong container.

That can save a lot of time and money for the airline, says Santos.

Garcia estimates an airline is saddled with costs of $250 each time a bag goes missing.

“”The value of this in terms of traveller loyalty will have to be evaluated by the airlines directly,”” says Long.

However, he says, the GTAA isn’t prepared to talk about costs and benefits until the system is fully operational and has been audited.

Challenges abound

One initial challenge of the project has been convincing the airlines of the benefits of BTRS over a manual system, says Long.

To date, baggage-handling companies such as GlobeGround North America and others have used the system in Terminal 3 with airlines such as British Airways, Cathay Pacific Airways and Olympic Air, he says.

Equally challenging is the promotion of a “”common use”” approach to the wireless network to ensure all of the airport’s users have bought in to the system, says Long.

At first glance, this may seem easy. But there is the odd case of a staff member going it alone and setting up “”rogue”” wireless connnections that interfere with the airport’s official network, he says.

“”Every once in a while we trip over someone who has set up a couple of access points in a little network, whether it’s in someone’s office or (elsewhere),”” he says. “”But that’s the nature of dealing with 1,800 hectares. Occasionally these things pop up, and when they do we deal with them.””

As for protecting the network from outside intrusion, the GTAA uses additional software that encrypts and protects all baggage-related transmissions to ensure no one from the outside can manipulate the information in any way, he says.

It was also a challenge to convince the GTAA’s senior managers that network security measures, such as added encryption, needed a slice of the IT budget’s pie.

Such measures can’t be seen, he says, which makes it hard for people to understand their utility when compared to physical security measures such as X-ray machines.

If the BTRS program were to be started over again, Long says “”it would have been nice”” to have a central monitoring system already in place.

He is currently looking for an availability management mechanism to monitor in real-time all of the airport’s IT systems, including the wireless system, to ensure everything is operational.

“”It’s not that we were remiss in the past. In some cases, there was no requirement to provide certain IT functions in the past ,and in others the technology was not available to deliver an effective solution.””

Santos says a future addition to the wireless system could be radio-frequency identification tags, which promise enhanced tracking ability.

The real-time ability of RFID tags would more than satisfy the stringent requirements of regulatory bodies such as the U.S. Transportation Security Administration, Santos says.

Recent RFID tests by Delta Airlines in conjunction with the TSA showed accuracy levels ranged from 96.7 per cent to 99.9 per cent compared to the 80- to 85-per cent accuracy rate that is typically provided by bar code scanners.

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