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Scanning bags on arrival, not just departure, improves travel security

Prevailing international aviation rules mandate 100 percent screening for outbound carry-on baggage. Modern screening techniques involve X-ray or other imaging systems combined with chemical sniffers for scent or trace detection, physical search and permissible item restrictions. During the process of going through security, it is easy to associate a problem bag with its owner to resolve any violations.

Outbound checked baggage is typically subject to less rigorous inspection, relying instead on the familiar check-in dialog “Did you pack your own bags?” combined with passenger manifest checks to ensure that unaccompanied baggage does not travel in the hold of commercial flights. The outbound baggage-screening market has matured significantly in recent years with international regulations requiring a reasonable degree of consistent inspection techniques for carry-on bags and, to a lesser extent, checked baggage.

Inbound Baggage Screening

In contrast to outbound screening, the inbound baggage screening industry is in its infancy. Motivated by the completely different objective of border control rather than flight safety, inbound baggage screening is driven by customs and excise rules, permissible goods import restrictions and national security concerns. Inbound screening aims to identify baggage containing drugs, weapons, currency, living organisms, toxins, illegal electronic equipment and taxable imports.

In most airports around the world, international inbound baggage inspection is triggered by voluntary passenger declaration or, in the case of attempted smuggling, by the watchful eye of a customs officer, perhaps from behind a two-way mirror or via remote video surveillance, observing the behavior and appearance of the arriving passenger.

The practical constraints on inbound baggage screening are significant. Simultaneously arriving flights can present a significant surge of passengers eager to grab their bags and head on their way. Arriving passengers are less tolerant of delays in comparison to the continuous stream of passengers trained to check in 90 minutes prior to their assigned departure time.

Using RFID to Intercept the Offender

In some airports, new coordinated screening techniques are being adopted to improve the screening of incoming baggage. The objective is to accommodate more passenger arrivals with the same number of customs and border patrol officers while increasing the interview rate for suspicious baggage. Having concluded that manual one-to-one association of suspicious bags with their owners is not practical at peak times, a major Asian airport has implemented the following UHF RFID-assisted inbound baggage-screening solution.

When international checked baggage is unloaded and enters the baggage hall, it can be automatically routed for screening techniques including scent/trace detection, X-ray, and other imaging techniques and physical inspection by humans or dogs.

If a suspicious bag is identified as in violation of any of the border controls, it can be intercepted and discreetly marked with a UHF Gen2 RFID tag. The bag then flows back into the customs hall for collection by its owner.

The customs hall and baggage collection area is equipped with UHF RFID readers, and multiple ceiling-mounted antennas are able to track tagged bags as they move onto the baggage carousel. The real-time location of each tag is reported to a customs officer who is remotely monitoring the customs hall.

The tagged baggage movement is tracked as it is retrieved by its owner and proceeds towards the exit. It can even be tracked if it is taken to the restrooms via a well-positioned ceiling antenna. The read range of an individual RFID antenna is approximately 5 meters, so any reads of the tag locate to a specific location within the customs hall. The RFID observation and location of the tag also can be used to identify the correct video surveillance camera that has a view of the suspicious bag and its owner.

As the potential smuggler prepares to leave the exit hall, the RFID-based tracking system provides the customs officer with an alert triggering the border control interview.

With this type of coordinated inbound baggage screening system, it is possible to process large volumes of inbound bags and efficiently follow through to resolve suspicious items without impeding the general flow of arriving passengers. Systems similar have been operating successfully in Asia since before the 2008 Olympics.

Looking Forward

With help from International Air Transport Association, significant progress is being made on the standardized use of RFID-enabled baggage tags for all checked bags. As the deployment of this automated identification technology progresses, it will become possible to associate the results of automated baggage scans with specific bags as they are tracked through the unloading bays, baggage halls and secure areas of airports worldwide. With the greater application of AUTO-ID, airline customers should reasonably expect faster transfers, a reduction in lost bags, greater security and fewer delays.

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