Airline Tech

Airline Lost Your Luggage? Let Your Phone Find It


Lost baggage awaits auction in London

Photograph by Graham Barclay/Bloomberg

Lost baggage awaits auction in London

(Corrects Richard Warther's name in the third paragraph.)

New airline bag tags that can be programmed with a mobile phone could make those sticky strips of paper a thing of the past—and maybe even prevent a painful separation between you and your bag. Airlines around the globe are keen to dispense with the bar-coded thermal paper tags they print by the billions and loop onto your luggage.

That adhesive paper is expensive, and the codes don’t keep millions of bags from being lost each year. Worldwide, about 1 percent of luggage was mishandled last year, costing an estimated $2.6 billion, according to the International Air Transport Association (IATA).

“It’s painful [for airlines] in so many ways,” says Richard Warther, president and chief executive officer of Vanguard ID Systems, a suburban Philadelphia company that makes a radio-frequency identification (RFID) bag tag. “It’s 1970 technology, you know? But because it’s just such a huge installed base, it’s hard for them to change on a dime.”

Attached end-to-end, a year’s output of the paper tags would circle the earth 30 times, according to IATA, which sponsored a passenger conference this week in Dublin and has published a global standard for RFID technologies that can be used to help airlines and airports cut costs and increase efficiency. Airlines also want to find ways to allow for quicker luggage drops, without the lengthy lines common at busy airports. “The aim is not to eliminate paper, but to eliminate hassle,” Andrew Price, an IATA project manager, wrote in an e-mail. “With the tag, you can queue less.”

Vanguard’s plastic device is embedded with RFID technology and near-field communications (NFC), along with an electronic paper display from E Ink. It allows a traveler to use a phone app to code the tag with a destination—CDG for Paris, ORD for Chicago’s O’Hare—and have it display on the tag. The RFID chip transmits the bag’s location. “The idea is that a guy has to be able to change his tag in the cab on the way to the airport,” Warther says. The display is compatible with the current handheld baggage scanners that airlines have deployed widely. “It scans as good as paper,” he says.

Airlines’ goal in this flurry of experimentation is to give road warriors more control over their bags and enable them to receive a text message from an airline when a bag is misplaced. The traveler could then direct the bag’s delivery to a hotel or home—with nary a frazzled baggage office worker to scream at. Airlines would also save untold sums if they could eliminate all those printers, paper, and ink. And you’d no longer have the minor struggle of removing that pesky, sticky strip of paper that often defies tearing.

On Oct. 15, British Airways (IAG:LN) began a 30-day trial on its 10 weekly flights between Seattle and London. The test involves about 100 Microsoft (MSFT) employees who travel with Nokia (NOK) Lumia phones. The airline plans to conduct several additional trials in coming months before rolling out the permanent tag widely in 2014, according to BA spokeswoman Caroline Titmuss. The tags will also work with Android and Apple (AAPL) mobile devices and will initially be used by the airline’s most frequent travelers. Qantas Airways (QAN:AU) has also conducted extensive RFID bag tagging in Australia.

While many airlines will likely equip their best customers with the tags for free, others may sell the devices or charge an annual fee for them. Warther estimates his will cost about $30 at travel stores and airports.

For travelers to adopt the tags, Warther says, “the biggest motivation is information—knowing where your bags are. When you get off the plane and they send you a text saying, ‘Sorry, your bag didn’t make it to Miami. What hotel are you staying in?’”

Bachman is an associate editor for Businessweek.com.

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