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Case Study: Vegas airport bets each way on wireless

Luggage won't get lost, and travellers get free Wi-Fi.

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Between the wireless LAN switches and the radio frequency identification system, McCarran International Airport in Las Vegas is spending serious money to go wireless. And that's not even counting what it paid for used luggage.

The switches are for the airport's no-charge wireless Internet access services for passengers. The luggage was used early this year to run an extensive battery of tests on the first part of a $120 million baggage system that exploits RFID tags and will boast 4 miles of conveyor belts.

RFID tested on old luggage
"We bought just about every piece of used luggage we could find at Salvation Army stores and other places," says Samuel Ingalls, McCarran's assistant director of aviation, information services. "We cleaned them out."

The luggage was hauled to the Air Cargo Terminal, chosen to be the first site for what eventually will be an airport-wide automated system to collect, screen and X-ray luggage, and then parcel it out on time to the gates to load onto jets. The Air Cargo site will also be used to screen luggage checked in from offsite locations such as hotels and resorts. Later this year, bags from those sites will arrive at this terminal, run through screening and then pass along the conveyor system being built at the other terminals.

The RFID tests at the terminal have been impressive, Ingalls says.

Bags with read-only RFID tags pass along the conveyors through gate-like RFID readers. A radio chip in each tag sends out a signal that is picked up by the gate's antenna array. The tags transmit a unique 10-digit ID number, which is forwarded along with a time stamp to a secure Oracle database that associates the information with passengers' personal data and flight information.

Bar codes are hit-and-miss
Until now, each airline at McCarran had its own tagging system based on bar codes, which have to be read by a laser scanner. The scanner must have a clear line of sight to the tag. But scans can fail to register because of dust on scanning heads, inclement weather in areas near jets or misaligned print heads that smear part or all of the bar-code label.

"Their read rates vary from about 80 percent to 90 percent accurate in most systems," Ingalls says. "Unless the tag can be clearly seen by the scanner, it won't be read."

Ingalls' goal for the RFID system was a read accuracy rate of 99.8 percent. In the tests earlier this year at the Air Cargo Terminal, using all those thousands of Salvation Army suitcases, backpacks and duffel bags, the lowest rate was 99.89 percent. "In one test with 3,000 bags, we had one misread," Ingalls says.

Lost bags cost money
McCarran on average handles 65,000 outbound bags per day. If 10 percent of those were misread, the airport would have to have a process to handle some 6,500 bags manually, at least for part of the process. Every time a bag has to be touched between a ticket counter and a jet's cargo bay, it costs time and money.

Lost or late bags cost even more. Mishandled baggage cost airlines $1 billion per year, according to data from SITA, a Geneva IT services company owned by airlines and other air transport industry companies. SITA estimates it costs an airline an average of nearly $90 when a bag doesn't show up on time. In 2004, the number of mishandled bags in the U.S. jumped 20 percent over the 2003 figure, SITA says.

That's a big incentive for McCarran and its airlines to bring the RFID system online, on schedule. The plan is to have conveyors in place, with RFID readers, RFID printers at the ticket counters in the main terminal and two new security scanning sites, all operational by mid-year, with the remaining sites in the months following.

The entire project - which includes conveyor installation, construction of what amounts to six multi-story buildings, IT spending, the RFID components and tags - will cost $125 million. That includes a 5-year $20 million contract for 100 million RFID tags.

FKI Logistex, a St. Louis company that specialises in automated materials handling, is building the new baggage system. The RFID components are from Symbol Technologies, which last fall acquired Matrics, the RFID company originally working on the project.
Free Wi-Fi arrives
Most passengers will never notice this system, though they might notice that they no longer have to schlep their bags over to the X-ray machines after checking in. This should give passengers whose computers are outfitted with a WLAN card more time to use McCarran's free wireless Internet access system.

The $75,000 WLAN system went live in January with 20 Aruba Wireless Networks access points - now more than 30. The airport plans to add another 30 over time to support more users, enable load balancing among access points and dedicate some as radio monitors, says Gerard Hughes, airport network manager.

Installation was easy...
The access points were installed easily. The IS group mounted them on pillars supporting the ubiquitous video screens known as FIDS, for Flight Information Display System, which show flight arrival and departure information throughout the terminals. These pillars were already wired for electricity and a link to the airport's fibre backbone. The access points connect back to one of Aruba's high-end Model 5000 switches in the main terminal's data center.

"We liked the idea of the access point as a dumb radio, with the intelligence on the switch," Hughes says.

It's a stand-alone WLAN, running separately from the airport's backbone. Internet access is via a 3 Mbit/s DSL pipe.

Roughly 200 to 300 people use the system daily. During the recent heavily attended Consumer Electronics Show, the number jumped to 900 to 1,200. A few times there were about 500 concurrent users, with no impact on performance.

... and so is support
The one unknown was customer support: how to handle the inevitable calls about connection problems or other glitches. The IS group chose simple Service Set Identifier, and put together an easy-to-read-and-use brochure that's distributed throughout the airport. It seems to be working: The help desk gets four or five calls a day about the WLAN. "So we think it's been pretty easy for people to get online," Hughes says.

Recently, one airport tenant, which offers wheelchair services for passengers, began running its VPN over the WLAN so staff with wireless handhelds can schedule services while on the move.

Over time, Hughes expects other tenants and the airport itself to add applications to the network, using Aruba's virtual LAN tagging support to keep them separate.


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