Andrew has close to 30 years’ experience in aviation, including 15 years with IATA. He is very well known for his work in the baggage sphere having previously served as IATA’s Head of Global Baggage Operations and his leading efforts within baggage innovation.
Mail went paperless decades ago. Magazines and newspapers followed. Business processes are often digital, and the barcoded boarding pass is an essential component of every boarding transaction. So, why do I have to print and attach a baggage tag to my bag each time I travel?
The humble baggage tag has done a lot for aviation. Countless billions of bags have been moved from their origin to destination based on the information it shows. It is a well-designed classic, so much so that it adorns t-shirts and cushions as an icon.
All things change though, and one of the changes that have quietly been deployed for several years is the electronic baggage tag. To make a quick recap, see the box for the different types of baggage tag and their uses:
To print or not to print
The fact is that any modern traveller doesn’t have to print a baggage tag anymore. It is now possible to use an electronic baggage tag. Airlines using the Amadeus Altéa Departure Control System can already quickly switch this functionality on.
An electronic bag tag?
A solid strap attaches the electronic tag to your bag. This can only be removed with a tool that is like a SIM removal tool, so that the tag cannot be easily removed by an unauthorised person. The baggage tag itself looks like a miniature eBook reader, mainly because it features the same bistatic display that can be programmed with data. That data remains displayed even when there is no power to the tag.
Concerns with all electronic devices on an aircraft include the risk of fire and the risk of interference. People tend to think that devices can send only very low power signals, but when there could be hundreds in the aircraft hold then the results become less predictable. The same for lithium, many tiny amounts can compound problems. There are strict limits on the use of lithium-ion and lithium metal batteries in aviation as a result. So imagine how great it is that a baggage tag doesn’t use a battery at all. Not only that, but no battery means no transmission. This is all because the bag tag can use the energy from a mobile phone’s NFC antenna to harvest enough power to change the display. This makes the tag very safe and secure for airline use.
Baggage tags have some other information on them that is essential for passing through borders. Baggage tags issued in the EU feature a green stripe to facilitate the free movement of goods. If there are no green stripes, then your journey started outside the EU and customs may be interested in your bag. If there are green stripes, then they will only stop and search if they have other concerns about your journey. The electronic baggage tag is no different, if your journey starts in the EU then there will be a green stripe, and when your journey starts elsewhere there won’t be a green stripe. Better yet, this is done automatically. Writing of customs, it is perhaps necessary to mention that some bad actors buy printers and paper in order to print and swap baggage tags. This facilitates smuggling and other activities that are bad for our society. The electronic baggage tag is much more secure and has layers of security to prevent misuse.
Readability & identification
Baggage damage happens, so what happens if the tag gets knocked about on the journey and the screen is damaged? Well, there are two different ways that the tag is protected. The first is that it is very hard to make the screen unreadable. Remember that the screen is bistatic – it needs no power to continue showing the information on it. Even if the display it cracked and damaged, you can still read it. Of course, the displays are highly robust and hard to damage as well. There is also a QR permanently printed on the back of the tag that identifies the tag. Passengers can choose to register their tags with BAGTAG when purchased, allowing the tag (and the bag) to be returned to the passenger. There is also work in progress to
allow a badge to be popped inside your bag that’s a simplified tracer connected to the baggage tag, as the last resort to return a missing bag is often to open in and look for identifying items. This is the reason I always put a copy of my itinerary inside my bag, immediately visible when the bag is opened.
In addition to having options to recover the bag should a tag come off, another advantage is not having to queue at the airport before dropping a bag off. You are arriving ready to travel so no more queuing for check-in, just a quick visit to the bag drop. Then there is accuracy. You are programming your own tag, so you can see that it is correct. Believe it or not, check-in agents sometimes put the wrong tag on a bag – I once had to find a VIP bag that was accidentally tagged to Birmingham rather than Geneva. Some electronic baggage tags let you put your own information on them when they are not being used for travel, so my tags show my name and phone number, in case the bag is mishandled.
Airports benefit also, as the passengers are not queuing and can move airside more rapidly. Longer airside dwell time increases the chance of discretionary spend at the airport shops and cafes. Then there is the bagtag screen, which is easier to read for the airport infrastructure than the paper-based tags. Every no-read or recirculation reduces the airport baggage performance, so there are benefits here too.
So, there is an easy-to-use, passenger-friendly, easy-to-implement mechanism that brings benefit to airlines, airports and passengers. All you need to do is switch the functionality on with Amadeus Altéa and you can be deploying electronic baggage tags in a few weeks. As an airline you could have this in place before the summer rush, easing some pressure on the check-in desks and boosting your image in terms of innovation. It’s time to get in touch.