New tags keep tabs on bags

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Travel - David Car­roll

UN­TIL re­cently if you had asked the av­er­age Aus­tralian if they’d heard of T5 they would prob­a­bly have guessed you were re­fer­ring to yet an­other Ter­mi­na­tor movie.

Now, thanks to a pub­lic re­la­tions dis­as­ter of epic pro­por­tions, most peo­ple know T5 is short­hand for Ter­mi­nal 5, Bri­tish Air­ways’s flash new home at Lon­don Heathrow.

The open­ing of T5 was meant to be a proud day for Bri­tish Air­ways and for Bri­tain, but when a state-of-the-art bag­gage sys­tem failed — along with var­i­ous other re­lated pro­cesses — it turned into a painful farce. In the end hun­dreds of flights were can­celled, thou­sands of peo­ple were sep­a­rated from their bags and two se­nior ex­ec­u­tives lost their heads.

Be­sides em­bar­rass­ing Bri­tish Air­ways, the T5 de­ba­cle high­lighted the grow­ing pres­sures air­lines are un­der when it comes to han­dling lug­gage and the chaos that can en­sue when things go wrong.

Geneva-based IT provider SITA, which tracks pas­sen­ger lug­gage for the air trans­port in­dus­try, es­ti­mates that in 2007 about 98 per cent of bags ar­rived at the same time as their own­ers and with­out any drama. Un­for­tu­nately, when you con­sider there were about 2.25 bil­lion pieces of bag­gage checked in last year, that means more than 42 mil­lion items were mis­han­dled or de­layed.

The ma­jor­ity of prob­lems oc­cur when lug­gage is trans­ferred from one air­craft to an­other, but there are plenty of other rea­sons things go astray, such as a fail­ure to load/off­load and tag­ging er­rors that can leave a case un­trace­able.

Mis­han­dling cost the air­lines about $US3.8 bil­lion last year, so the in­dus­try is cer­tainly keen to elim­i­nate the prob­lems. One of the tech­nol­ogy so­lu­tions be­ing ex­plored is Ra­dio Fre­quency Iden­ti­fi­ca­tion tags, which are faster to process, eas­ier to scan and less likely to be dam­aged or dis­lodged than the pa­per bar­codes now strapped to checked bag­gage. At the mo­ment only about 6 per cent of air­ports are us­ing RFID tags but SITA ex­pects the fig­ure to reach 45 per cent by the end of next year.

De­spite the air­lines’ ef­forts, the to­tal num­ber of bags mis­han­dled last year was still 25 per cent higher than in 2006, and things are only go­ing to get worse as pas­sen­ger num­bers climb and air­ports be­come more con­gested.

So what can the switched-on trav­eller do? Other than avoid­ing checked-in lug­gage al­to­gether, the best op­tion is to in­vest in some smart bag­gage tags from com­pa­nies such as Glob­al­bag­tag (www.glob­al­bag­ or Trace Me (www.tracemel­ug­gage­ Such tags can be or­dered di­rect and cost from $10 to $25 each; they are branded with unique se­rial num­bers that iden­tify their own­ers when typed into a se­cure web­site. This means that when­ever a tagged bag turns up, an air­line em­ployee (with ap­pro­pri­ate se­cu­rity clear­ance) sim­ply ac­cesses the site to ob­tain the owner’s de­tails and travel itin­er­ary. Usu­ally, as soon as the tag num­ber is typed in, an email or SMS mes­sage is also au­to­mat­i­cally sent to the owner.

The sys­tem is safer than writ­ing per­sonal de­tails on a case, which can ex­pose a trav­eller to iden­tity theft and let thieves know your home could be empty. Glob­al­bag­tag’s Chris Tru­elove claims to have pi­o­neered the smart tag sys­tem af­ter los­ing his bags trav­el­ling from Bri­tain to Syd­ney for our 2000 mil­len­nium cel­e­bra­tions.

The com­pany has since sold more than one mil­lion tags and its ser­vice con­tin­ues to evolve, with a deal now be­ing ne­go­ti­ated with FedEx to of­fer world­wide door-to-door de­liv­ery of lost items. Trace Me is the new­est kid on the block, but it uses the world’s largest prop­erty own­er­ship reg­is­ter,­mo­, which has in ex­cess of 20 mil­lion sub­scribers and is used by more than 40 law en­force­ment agen­cies to track all man­ner of lost or stolen valu­ables.

Hope­fully, you’ll never ex­pe­ri­ence that hor­ri­ble feel­ing when the carousel stops and you’re left stand­ing empty-handed. But if you do, a sim­ple lit­tle tag may mean all is not lost. David Car­roll’s col­umn on new travel tech­nol­ogy ap­pears monthly in Travel &In­dul­gence .

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