Airlines are getting better at handling baggage. Really. The Department of Transportation last week announced that, going back to when the data was first collected in 1987, airlines mishandled a record low number of bags between January and June of this year. In April, airline industry association SITA released a report showing that 99.1 percent of checked baggage was delivered on time in 2011. That translates to a more than 50 percent drop in mishandled bags since 2007.
So why and how are airlines getting better at keeping tabs on your bags?
1: Lost bags are expensive. Airlines have saved $650 million by screwing up bag handling less in recent years, but that’s chump change compared to the $1.56 billion that mishandled bags still cost them. Plus, good baggage handling is a competitive advantage in an industry already marred by a poor reputation for customer service and fliers who are annoyed and angered by bag check-in fees. So airlines are taking that fee revenue and testing out new technologies to improve visibility and accountability in the bag handling process.
2: Consumers want power. Increasingly tech-savvy travelers are embracing features such as mobile phone 2-D bar coded boarding passes. Studies show that travelers want more features like this, and they want to be able to have more control over the baggage handling process. That’s why a number of airlines are starting to offer self-service baggage checking processes that let travelers print and apply their own baggage tracking tags. For travelers, this means less waiting, since long lines of passengers waiting to drop off their bags are often cut. The upside in terms of baggage handling is that the bags are processed more quickly and are more likely to land, with you, on your flight. Plus, new automated baggage scanning systems move bags more efficiently and quickly than before.
3: Bags are getting smarter. Though it has gotten a very slow start, airlines and airports (since technology adoption generally requires buy-in from both parties) are increasingly using baggage tags that contain embedded RFID tags, which carry the same identification information as conventional bar code tags but are more reliably read by automated scanners. That’s because RFID does not require a clean line-of-site between the tag and the reader. Bar code scanners, on the other hand, do require this, which means than physical changes to the labels — a smudge or dirt or a bent label — renders the bar code unreadable. The McCarran International airport in Las Vegas has long been using RFID-enabled baggage tags and conveyor systems.
In the future, airport technologies will likely merge and the single-use paper baggage tags might go the way of the Dodo bird. Permanent, personalized baggage tags containing RFID inlays and our frequent flier IDs will be used to track baggage, but we’ll also be able to use our cell phones to check ourselves and those bags onto a flight. And if the bags don’t meet us at our generation, our phones might be able to show us their last known location. Overall, the baggage-tracking process is becoming more transparent and efficient. As a result, airlines will keep more bags from falling into the abyss.