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.
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
luggage tag talks to sensors throughout the bagging process, enabling
workers to track where it is, like international shipping companies do with
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
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