New tags keep tabs on bags
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.globalbagtag.com) or Trace Me (www.tracemeluggagetracker.com). 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, www.immobilise.com, 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 .