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An average of 42 million bags are misplaced by airlines each year, despite the fact that we live in a highly-wired world, where major shipping companies have already figured out how to track the location of packages en route to delivery.
Companies like FedEx, DHL and TNT allow customers to look up the location of their packages online, from the moment it ships to the day it arrives on their doorstep, with the help of global positioning satellite data. So why can't airlines universally track luggage with as much accuracy as these shipping companies?
Air France is the first major airline to prove that high-tech baggage tracking can be done. Since May, fliers who provide their contact information at booking are automatically enrolled in Air France Connect. The free service keeps passengers updated via their smart phones about changes to their trip, including text-message alerts whenever a passenger's baggage has gone missing.
But one baggage-delivery snafu that all airlines, including Air France, must hurdle is that airline information technology systems don't always communicate well with airport computers, which often run on different systems. Thankfully, as early as next year, a solution to this problem may appear at about 50 airports worldwide.
Amadeus, an information technology firm, is partnering with SITA, a provider of global information and telecommunication solutions for the air transport industry, to integrate airports and major airlines. The project, BagMessage, aims to provide digital updates to airlines and passengers about the status of lost luggage. The service could also be integrated with an airline's custom interface for baggage tracing, such as Air France's Connect.
The program isn't something travellers can sign up for. It is an infrastructure improvement that will allow more airlines to copy Air France's lead and create digital, point-to-point baggage tracking. Synching up airport and airline computers will save time, preventing delays in pinpointing the whereabouts of any given bag and updating travellers on the location of their bags in real-time.
However, at smaller airports records are often not computerized, which makes it difficult to track checked bags. The lost-and-found desks at many smaller airports require passengers to fill out a paper form when filing a claim for lost luggage, and these paper records slow down the process of matching lost bags with their owners. One attempted solution for these airports is the WorldTracer kiosk, a SITA-developed, self-service computer located in airport terminals where passengers can file their lost luggage claim digitally. Last year, Bermuda's Wade International became the world's first airport to install these kiosks, which enable passengers to scan baggage claim tags and enter contact details to receive follow-up text messages about the status of their baggage recovery and delivery.
The second baggage tracking problem to overcome is when the routing label is poorly printed or torn, preventing machines from reading it properly and requiring it to be manually handled. Over the past year at Sydney and a few other Australian airports, Qantas has been testing high-tech frequent-flier cards loaded with RFID (radio-frequency identification) chips, essentially replacing paper luggage tags with electronic ones. At check-in, members of the airline's loyalty program receive a reusable plastic tag with a wireless chip inside. Each customer hooks the tag around his or her luggage handle and checks the bag. The smart luggage tag talks to sensors throughout the bagging process, enabling workers to track where it is, like international shipping companies do with packages.
Looking ahead, Delta Air Lines announced that before the end of the year it will update its Fly Delta app (free, Android, Blackberry and iPhone) so members of its loyalty program can trace a piece of luggage after it has been lost. Since April, travellers have been able to access Delta's website to plug in their luggage tag number for tracking details by any Web browser, mobile or desktop.
In the meantime, there are no digital tools for an individual to track the physical location of their luggage. Until wireless technology gets so cheap and security procedures are updated so that we can do it ourselves, we need the airlines to track bags for us.
Sean O'Neill is the tech travel columnist for BBC Travel