The United States has well over 100,000 “baggage-related incidents” each year; these might include lost, damaged or unintentionally redirected bags. The International Air Transport Association, or IATA, has decided that enough is enough, and has passed a resolution that requires all its partners—some 260 airlines, which, combined, carry about 83 percent of all passengers each year—figure out a fix. That fix turns out to be electronic bag tracking.
Delta is the first major airline in the U.S. to implement top-to-bottom bag tracking, promising to roll it out in 2016. Delta is already one of the lowest in terms of lost luggage, placing fourth overall with only 1.95 reports per 1,000 fliers (the airline with the fewest average incidents, for what it’s worth, is Virgin America, with only 0.78 incidents per 1,000 fliers).
Delta’s new initiative is a $50 million project spanning hundreds of airports, but the general idea turns out to be simple. When you check a bag for a Delta flight, you’ll receive a paper tag on your bag, as usual. Except, starting later this year, that tag will be embedded with Radio Frequency Identification, or RFID, tech, which enables much quicker scanning, as well as the ability to track your bag from anywhere with a simple app on your smartphone.
“[RFID] will help the airline have better control of where each luggage item is, while reducing the manual work [currently needed] to make sure all stickers are visible to be scanned,” says Roy Daya, an analyst who works with aviation companies. Daya says that RFID’s chief advantage is that it can be scanned from a distance, repeatedly and reliably, unlike, say, a barcode, which needs very precise scanning that often must be performed by a human. An RFID tag on your luggage can pass through a conveyor belt and won’t need to be grabbed and scanned; it’ll just sail on through, communicating with sensors in the airport along the way. Not only will RFID allow passengers to know where their luggage is at all times, it might even speed up the entire process of baggage claim, an eternal source of irritation to travelers.
RFID tech isn’t new; it’s the same tech that’s in your highway toll pass, allowing you to avoid having to stop and pay cash at tollbooths, and is also often used in security keycards that open doors in office buildings and hotels. These days, though, RFID is incredibly cheap, which is how Delta can get away with inserting it into every single luggage tag that goes into its systems. Airports like Hong Kong International have for years already demanded that every single tag include an RFID chip, as have flights from Australia’s Quantas Airways.
Delta is the first major American carrier to go 100% RFID with its tags, but it won’t be the last. That IATA rule affects other airlines, including JetBlue, American, and United. Very soon, it will seem totally normal to whip out your phone and find out where your bag is, with the tap of an app.