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Tracking Success

We’ve all been there – stranded at the carousel as somebody else claims the last of our flight’s bags. The empty merry-go-round stops and we experience that sharp sinking feeling as we realize our luggage didn’t make it.

Lost luggage is an emotional subject; the lack of control you feel when your bag doesn’t turn up is hard to accept for someone who’s normally in charge – and is particularly distressing if you have a crucial meeting to attend.

Within the aviation sector, the term “mishandled” luggage is applied to all bags that are delayed, damaged, pilfered, lost or stolen after being checked in. The reasons behind the glitches in the system can be human error, a fault in the automated systems that move luggage from check-in to aircraft, or tight transfers.

The good news is, those instances have been vastly reduced over the past several years. Here’s what the numbers look like, according to the latest report from SITA, the airline IT people: In 2015, the total number of mishandled bags was 23.1 million – quite a substantial number – but lower than the 24.3 million in 2014. However that’s against the backdrop of a booming air travel market which saw a 7 percent increase in the number of passengers. Meaning the overall rate as measured in mishandled-bag-per-thousand-passengers actually dropped 10.5 percent.

Of course all these statistics are pretty much meaningless if your bag is the one that’s lost its way. The uncertainty of whether you need to go shopping for more than just spare underwear, or try to rewrite that business proposal from memory, or just wait for your luggage to turn up the next day leaves you in state of limbo.

There are several contributing factors that put you at a greater risk of becoming one of the unlucky few.

“Generally, the larger the airport, the greater the chance something is going to go wrong,” says Nick Gates, portfolio director for SITA, a specialist in air transport communications and IT solutions. “However, some airports have much better records of handling bags – a large airport in Asia will probably have a better record than a medium-sized airport in Europe.”

If you regularly take multi-sector flights then you are among the most likely to be parted with your checked luggage. “The more sectors you fly, the higher the chance of your bag misconnecting,” says Albert Chi, cofounder of, a company that uses the same tracking system as airlines to find missing bags for its customers. “If the first sector of your flight is delayed, you may be able to rush to catch your next flight, but your bag still has to go through the same checks.”

Resolution 753

However, you may find some comfort in knowing that lost luggage is a major pain point for the airlines as well. In fact, it’s a mistake that they cannot afford to make; last year mishandled bags cost the airlines in excess of $2.3 billion. Which explains the industry’s scrutiny of the subject and efforts to minimize incidents.

“We had seen things steadily get worse from 2003 to 2007, but there has been a significant improvement in the whole baggage process since then,” Gates says “We’ve seen airports and airlines spending money on baggage handling, sortation, tracking and reconciliations systems.”

While many readers will have experienced first-hand the difficulties in claiming back compensation from airlines, if successful, passengers are now entitled to up $1,170 per bag under the Montréal Convention (although you will probably need receipts).

So mishandled bags are everybody’s loss. For that reason, the International Air Transport Association has enacted Resolution 753, which goes into effect in June 2018. Perhaps not soon enough for many, but put simply, Resolution 753 says that “IATA members shall maintain an accurate inventory of baggage by monitoring the acquisition and delivery of baggage.”

Under the resolution, IATA member airlines have committed themselves to “demonstrate delivery and acquisition of baggage when custody changes.” In other words, every time the bag changes hands along its journey, there’s a way to follow its progress using intelligent tracking capabilities – technology that’s been commonplace in the overnight shipping industry for years.

Perhaps the most encouraging aspect of Resolution 753 is the requirement that airlines have the ability to exchange information regarding the whereabouts of your bags. Interoperability has been a sticking point – along with the question of who pays – in implementing a truly industry-wide solution to the vexing question of mishandled luggage.

“This part of the IATA compliance, which would allow interoperability between airlines, is being looked after by the Passenger and Airport Data Interchange Standards (PADIS) Board,” writes analyst Kim Madsen in a whitepaper for Beumer Group, a provider of logistics automation equipment. The job of the PADIS board is to develop and maintain standards for electronic data interchange among airlines and airports’ passenger service activities.

Resolution 753 does not spell out specific technology solutions for tracking bags, but clearly the requirement is for the bags to be tagged in a way that makes tracing more or less automatic. “As a minimum, the resolution requires some level of manual scanning,” Masden writes. “The main purpose is simply to make sure that the bag has reached its destination and is reconciled with its rightful owner at the right time.”

Among other solutions being investigated by the industry are global system tags for mobile (GSM) communications/global positioning system (GPS)-enabled, beacons and radio frequency identification (RFID).

RFID chips contain an application-specific integrated circuit which can be read and/or written to at each step along the chain. Because the RFID tag does not require line of sight scanning, it can be read faster with almost 100 percent consistent readability and very few ‘no reads.’  In contrast barcoded tags are often damaged during handling, rendering them less readable by automated laser barcode scanners. RFID tags have the added advantage of providing data compatible with the technology that airline systems use in the interline baggage handling environment.

“Ten years ago, it was hoped that the whole world would move to using RFID,” Gates says. “But unfortunately, it’s not really been adopted by airlines and airports. I think it’s down to the cost of the baggage tags themselves and a need to upgrade reading systems at the airport, which is a significant investment.”

Solutions in Sight?

However with the momentum provided by Resolution 753 – and the incentive to reduce some of that $2.1 billion lost-luggage cost – airlines and airports are starting to ramp up adoption of the RFID solution.

If you have flown via Hong Kong International or Las Vegas during the past couple of years, your luggage will have had an RFID tag attached. While other airports and airlines use the technology, these are the only airports to have implemented it across all of their flights.

Alaska Airlines is currently testing Vanguard ID Systems’ ViewTag among 500 of its frequent fliers. The tags have an e-paper display, a Bluetooth low energy radio and a passive RFID. The airline plans to evaluate the results of this trial before deciding whether to continue using the ViewTag or make it available to more passengers. The reusable digital bag tags are similar to those which British Airways tested in 2013.

Qantas has been offering such tags since 2010 – priced at A$29.95/$22 (or free for Platinum One, Platinum, Gold and Silver Frequent Flyer club members), the permanent Q Bag Tags are RFID-enabled and can be used across most of the airline’s domestic network.

In what may be the highest-profile move to RFID yet, Delta Air Lines has announced it will become the first US carrier to use RFID on all its baggage. The airline plans to roll out the technology by the end of 2016. The technology represents a $50 million investment, according to the airline.

“We aim to reliably deliver every bag on every flight,” Delta’s senior vice president of airport customer service and cargo operations Bill Lentsch said in a statement. “This innovative application of technology gives us greater data and more precise information throughout the bag’s journey.”

There has also been a flurry of tech companies such as Rebound Tag, Trakdot and Trace Me Luggage Tracker that have created RFID tags and cellular tracking devices that attach to or slip inside suitcases. Many of these come with a smartphone app, so passengers can track their luggage themselves and receive texts when it has been found. Prices typically range from $20 to $79.99, but some charge additional annual subscription fees $4.99.

Luggage manufacturers are also jumping on the RFID wagon. German high-end luggage manufacturer Rimowa has been working with Lufthansa as its official launch partner on an electronic luggage tag. The digital screen built into the bag and located near the handle displays baggage information in the same format, size and appearance of typical paper labels. Since mid-March, Lufthansa passengers can update the Rimowa tag with their flight information using the Lufthansa app on their smartphone to transfer data, via Bluetooth, from their digital boarding pass. Then they simply place their bag on the conveyor at the Lufthansa bag-drop desk.

Quite possibly the ultimate in bag-check crossmarketing to date, Airbus is testing a prototype of Bag2Go. The concept bag looks like any regular hard shell suitcase from the outside, but inside it’s got an RFID chip that can link up the bag with automated baggage-handling systems. Other built-in goodies include a scale activated by lifting the handle, a GPS tracker and an alarm to notify you if the bag is opened or manipulated – all accessed via the iPhone app.

Airbus has not said when the product might be available, but has indicated it would license the bags to airlines, rather than sell them directly to consumers.

The clock is ticking on Resolution 753. By 2018, IATA member airlines will need to have baggage tracking technology that meets the requirements, and more importantly, eliminates the frustration of passengers standing empty-handed at baggage claim.

In the meantime, the airlines are speeding up their experiments. As Sunae Park, Alaska’s managing director of airport services says of the carrier’s bag tag tests: “We may try something new that never makes it to the customer, and that’s OK. The point is that we’re always thinking about what comes next.”  

By Rose Dykins & Dan Booth