Is it time to ditch the paper tag? Joined end to end, a year’s output of baggage tags would circle the earth 30 times. At around $0.05 each, the aviation industry throws away a fortune in sticky labels every year, and millions of bags are still lost, totalling around 0.7% of all baggage in 2013, according to SITA.

Dealing with those 26 million or so missing items costs airlines and airports approximately $2.54 billion. At that scale, even tiny advances can deliver marked improvements in the flight experience for passengers and drive down costs for operators.

"There has been a lot of work on improving all aspects of baggage handling," says Andrew Price, head of IATA’s baggage services group. "By addressing the biggest problem areas, mishandling dropped by 52% between 2008 and 2012. It was about doing everything you could to make a bag move smoothly through an airport."

Launched in 2007, IATA’s Baggage Improvement Programme has been a huge success, saving the industry $1.9 billion every year. But there’s still plenty of room for improvement, and the decades-old bag-tagging system is a prime target.

Scanners misread around 2% of barcodes, while re-use of the same numbers, particularly by ground handling crews, leads to duplicate tags and further potential for mishandling. When a bag does go missing, tagging errors and inadequate messaging systems can make it difficult to resolve the problem.

"It means that you don’t always know which bag is in front of you without having to do some extra investigation," explains Price. "That is a situation that we want to get away from."

Object permanence

Radio frequency identification (RFID) has long offered a potential tracking solution. RFID scanners use wireless signals to automatically read unique tags attached to luggage a few metres away. As the tags are unpowered, there are no batteries required.

The aviation business has looked into RFID tracking many times before – and not just for bags. Lyngsoe Systems built a tracking system for baggage trolleys at Singapore’s Changi Airport in 1997, and other trials have covered everything from aircraft parts to containers.

"The first RFID trial was in 1992," says Price. "When I was at British Airways [BA] in 1998, we trialed very-low-frequency 125MHz tags, which were excellent but expensive."

The first concrete step in RFID adoption came in 2006 when IATA built a business case for using it as part of the standard paper bag-tag. Attached as normal at check-in, the RFID tag or ‘inlay’ identifies the bag throughout its journey and reduce mishandling by about 20%. Numerous paper tag-based RFID baggage systems are now in operation at airports, such as Aalborg in Denmark.

"The business case showed a positive return for the industry of about $800 million, but the global costs for the airports and airlines were huge,"says Price. "RFID readers needed to be integrated into the baggage systems, and the tag price would more than double. Instead, people started getting interested in what you could do if you had a unique confirmed identity for a bag rather than the barcode ‘licence plate’. Could you have a permanent bag tag that was always associated with the person?"

This is precisely what the electronic bag-tag (EBT) allows. RFID tracking still reduces mishandling, but tags can be reused rather than thrown away, and a barcode display offers backwards compatibility with the existing system. EBTs also make check-in more convenient for passengers, fitting well with IATA’s Fast Travel goals.

Able to monitor each bag’s location, airports can message passengers to, for example, confirm their luggage is ready to be loaded onto their flight or that it’s waiting for pick-up on carousel number three. RFID tracking data can be used in a plethora of other airport processes. For example, one-stop security requires the ability to identify a bag uniquely, and a permanent tag ensures that the correct information is always being shared.

The past two years have seen intensive development of electronic tags by airlines. Since April 2013, IATA has been working with its members to make sure tags from different manufacturers, airlines and airports all work together. Adopting common smartphone standards like near-field communication (NFC) and Bluetooth for close-quarter interaction is also vital for the widest compatibility.

"The RFID standard has been there since 2005, and we’ve now written the standard for the EBT," says Price. "The first draft is finished and approved, and will be published in 2015, but it is already being used by airlines that want to launch EBTs today."

There have been numerous EBT prototypes, trials and deployments across the industry. BA’s late-2013 trial between Seattle and London was a huge hit with the participating Microsoft employees, and will be rolled out widely in 2014. Qantas’s Q tag has led the way in Asia, with RFID systems installed at most Australian airports.

"With GSM and GPS, the tag itself becomes a communication channel between the airline and the passenger."

Today’s EBT designs, like the ViewTag from Vanguard ID Systems, have thin, tough and flexible displays – rather like a Kindle – that show coding data identical to a normal baggage tag. Using the same bistatic technology as supermarket shelf displays, they need no battery, and the information shown lasts for years without degradation.

"We’ve tested them, and they read really well with normal barcode scanners," says Price. "This means that each airline and airport can decide on a case-by-case basis to invest in new systems to take advantage of the tag in improving tracking."

King of convenience

Passengers use the airline’s mobile app to check in and then hold their phone close to the tag to let the app update the tag display via NFC or Bluetooth LE. The phone also provides the power needed to change the display. Passengers then simply drop their bag off without queuing and walk through security.

Bag messaging data transfers immediately to airline and airport systems, and if their bag does go missing, the traveller can use the mobile app to tell the airline where to deliver it.

Even more sophisticated tags are now appearing. In March, Air France-KLM revealed eTag and eTrack prototype devices that bring in GSM and GPS functionality for the first time.

"With GSM and GPS, the tag can be updated automatically and remotely with no passenger interaction," says Price. "The tag itself becomes a communication channel between the airline and the passenger."

The eTag is an IATA-standard EBT with two displays, while the eTrack transmits its location to airlines and customers from inside luggage.

The battery-powered eTrack needs recharging after approximately ten flights. Partner Samsonite’s Track & Trace suitcase includes embedded eTag and eTrack devices. Live trials will start in December this year.

Promoting the wider adoption of EBT is the next challenge. The cost means that simply handing one of them to every passenger would be impossibly expensive. Gifting them to loyal top-tier customers is one obvious option, while airports could also use them in conjunction with other promotional offers to attract customers away from competitors.

With IATA research showing that more than half of passengers are tempted by EBTs, many are happy to pay for them – something borne out by Qantas with its Q tag. Another option is to charge an annual fee for their use.

"Qantas has invested in the infrastructure in Australia to enable the use of RFID, and that has been a great success," says Price. "People are happy to pay for the tags. We’re encouraging Qantas to put a display on the Q tag so it’s internationally compatible."

Alongside EBTs, home-printed bag tags are also driving down operating costs and improving the passenger experience. Passengers check-in online and print their luggage tags at home along with their boarding pass.

Once printed, they simply fold the paper, place it in a plastic folder and attach it to their bag, thus reducing the
bag-drop process to under 30 seconds. Alaska Airlines and Air France have launched home-printed tags, while Iberia’s My Bag Tag can now be used for all international flights.

"They offer many of the benefits of EBT at a fraction of the cost," says Price. "The next step is to add RFID to the tag holder, into which passengers can insert their home-printed tag."

Lufthansa, a pioneer in this area with its HomeTag, started trialing an RFID-enabled tag holder on its Frankfurt-Tokyo Narita route in April this year. The holder enables self-service bag drops and contains an extra copy of all the baggage details.

Adopt, adapt and improve

Wider industry adoption of RFID-based tagging now looks unstoppable, though there are still regulatory hurdles for home-printed tags and EBTs. One is the mandatory green striping that identifies any tag issued in Europe – tough to replicate with a monotone printer or EBT display. Though Asia is much less difficult, current European legislation doesn’t accommodate any bag tag other than the traditional airport-printed, paper format.

"We’re continuing advocacy with bodies like the European Commission to make sure we can use electronic and home-printed tags for flights originating in Europe," says Price. "If you are coming from Asia, it’s no problem to use a home-printed tag to fly into Europe."

IATA is also continuing to focus on baggage improvement in numerous areas, with shared IT standards playing a key role. A major ambition for Price and his team is to replace the outdated and costly to maintain ‘Type B’ messaging system with modern, internet-based technology. A common industry data structure for baggage information is another goal, as is sharing security scan images across multiple agencies.

Traditional baggage tags are going to be with us for a long time – but, with EBTs, home printing and an industry willing to innovate, its days look numbered.