Digital bag tags could make paper luggage tags obsolete

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A permanent digital luggage tag being tested by British Airways could help make temporary tags obsolete and speed up the check-in process.

The 2.95 billion adhesive luggage tags that airlines now print each year are enough to circle the Earth 39 times, according to the International Air Transport Association. “And they’re not just made of paper, but a silicon derivative that’s very hard to recycle,” said Andrew Price, IATA’s head of baggage services.

British Airway’s digital tag would allow travelers to use the same ID on each journey.

Here’s how it works: Using the airline’s mobile app, travelers can check in for a flight and hold their smartphones over a personalized digital tag to program it with flight details and baggage destination information.

The tag uses Near Field Communication (NFC,) a short-range low-power wireless technology to transfer the information and long-lasting Kindle-like electronic ink to keep the unique barcode displayed and readable by baggage handlers and machine readers.

British Airways may roll out a more sophisticated version of the digital tag for use by passengers in early 2014, but Morgan said the airline hasn’t decided whether it will give the tag to its frequent fliers and/or offer it for sale at a price yet to be determined.

British Airways isn’t the only company working on a digital bag tag.

In 2011, Australian airline Qantas Airways introduced its QBag Tag. The permanent electronic tag can currently be used only on the airline’s domestic routes (with some exceptions) and relies on radio-frequency identification (RFID) rather than near-field communication to encode flight details onto the tag.

“Convenience and speed is the key for frequent travelers,” said Richard Warther, president and CEO of Vanguard ID Systems, a Pennsylvania-based company that makes digital luggage tags. Security is built into the design so “electronic bag tags are now as good as the digital passports that are scanned when you get to customs,” said Warther.

Morgan agreed on the safety. “The digital bag tag contains the same information as a paper tag so there are no security risks,” he said.

“But,” he said, “I expect you may begin to see airlines using the digital tags within a year.”