Have you ever stepped off the plane at your destination to find that your checked baggage took a detour? It happens to many frequent travelers eventually, but it’s not because airlines lose a lot of bags. In fact, they only lose a few. That’s thanks in part to the airline luggage tags that the agent affixes to your bag at the check-in counter.
Airline luggage tags — those sticky strips you just rip off your bag when you get home or to your hotel — play a crucial part in getting your bags to the right place. Read on to learn exactly how airline luggage tags keep your bags on track and en route to the correct destination.
1. Tags give the airline, the airport, and the TSA important information
Slate characterizes airline luggage tags as “a masterpiece of design and engineering.” The publication explains, “Absent its many innovations, you’d still be able to jet from Anchorage to Abu Dhabi. But your suitcase would be much less likely to meet you there.” Airline luggage tags play a critical role in giving the airline — and the airport’s baggage system — all the information they need about your bag.
These tags originally looked a lot like the luggage tags used aboard steamships. But they evolved as air travel became more commonplace. Most notably, airlines adapted them to include room for a critical piece of information: The bag’s weight. That’s still a crucial data point for airlines. They need to distribute weight carefully through the cargo hold each time they load a plane.
2. Modern airline luggage tags print automatically
Slate reports that in the early days of air travel, tags were blank. Airline staff would fill them in by hand. Later, tags included pre-printed destination codes. Airlines then introduced complex color schemes to help baggage handlers quickly identify a bag’s destination. Automated baggage tags, introduced in the 1990s, added two important features: Custom printing and a bar code.
Airlines now use bar-coded tags to sort and track bags automatically. But the tag doesn’t just contain a bar code. The airline also custom-prints the tag with your name, your flight details, and your destination. That usually happens right in front of you when you check in for your flight.
Slate reports that custom printing played a critical role in getting the modern baggage tag system off the ground. Early adopters could introduce modern tags before every airport could handle them. Plus, baggage handlers can still read the tags manually if the system breaks down.
3. Bar codes prevent lost baggage and reduce delays
The Washington Post reports that the choice to add bar codes to airline luggage tags has paid off. Fewer bags go missing today than before airlines relied on bar-coded tags. That’s because the bar codes enable the airport’s automated baggage handling system to keep track of each bag throughout the process. The system knows your bag’s location from the moment you check in to the time you pick up your bag at baggage claim.
Plus, if your flight made it off the ground and to your destination without any delays, you can thank the airline luggage tags attached to everybody’s bags. As Slate reports, the bar codes printed on the tags actually reduce delays. How? They automate the security measure of ensuring that every bag loaded on to the plane matches to a passenger who has actually boarded the plane.
4. Sensors track your bag’s progress thanks to the luggage tag
So where, exactly, does your bag go after you hand it over at check-in (and after the customer service agent attaches a luggage tag)? According to The Washington Post, it trundles along the conveyor belt for a bit. Then it “descends into the labyrinthine system of the TSA.” Sensors placed every few feet along the belt track the bag’s progress using the luggage tag. They set off an alarm if the bag goes missing in the second or two between sensors.
The machinery also identifies bags that are too big and sends them down a belt to a TSA inspector. But regular bags proceed down the belt to pass through a scanner. The scanner checks to see whether the bag could contain a bomb. Once the scanner clears the bag, it moves down the conveyor belt and into the airline’s luggage system. All along this winding route, the airline luggage tags ensure that your bag ends up on the right plane.
5. The TSA does inspect some bags
If the scanner isn’t sure whether your bag contains a bomb, or if it spots something suspicious, the baggage system sends the bag to a TSA inspector. An inspector in a control room looks at the scans of the bag. If that inspector concludes that it doesn’t pose a risk, then the bag heads straight for the airline’s luggage system.
But if the inspector looking at the scans isn’t sure? Then it heads to a TSA inspection team, who opens the bag. If you added a lock, the TSA will use a master key to open it and look for whatever item alarmed the scanner. They also test everything with swabs that detect explosives.
Once they determine that the bag is safe, they repack it and put it back on the conveyor belt. The belt takes it to the airline’s system. Then, baggage handlers load the bags onto carts, and tow those carts to the airplane.
6. Modern airline luggage tags aren’t made of paper
As your bags makes their way through the baggage handling system and toward the plane, the airline luggage tags ensure that they go to the right place. Those luggage tags have to withstand a lot of rough handling, though. The tags have to resist cold, heat, sunlight, ice, oil, and moisture. They also can’t tear. And if they get nicked — by the mechanized airport baggage system, for instance — they must not tear further.
Slate reports that when airlines introduced the current tags in the early 1990s, engineers had to do a lot of work to find the right material. The publication notes, “plain old paper can’t begin to meet all these requirements.” So airlines use a composite of silicon and plastic. Contrary to the tag’s appearance, the only paper in it is in the adhesive backing.
7. The tags are easy to attach but require some effort to detach
Another set of requirements for modern airline luggage tags? Despite being inexpensive, flexible, and disposable, the tags have to be easy to attach but “impossible” to detach until the bag arrives safely at its destination. Slate reports, “Old tags were fastened with a string through a hole, but mechanized baggage systems eat these for breakfast.”
The current tag, with its pressure-sensitive adhesive, loops through the handle of your bag. The two ends, pressed together, form an adhesive-to-adhesive bond. Any force applied gets distributed over the entire width of the tag. So such tags hardly ever detach by accident. But they’re still easy for passengers to remove once the bag arrives safely at its destination.
8. Extra labels also have the bar code
What if the main baggage tag does get pulled off a bag? Fortunately, the airline also attaches additional small adhesive tags as a safeguard. According to Slate, airlines call these tags “bingo tags,” “removable stubs,” or “stubbies.” Originally, they helped airlines track which bags got loaded onto the plane. But currently, these tags just help out the mechanized airport baggage system in the event that a loop tag does detach.
As Slate notes, stubbies left over from one flight can confuse the system when you go back to the airport for your next flight. So, you’ll always want to make sure you remove them after each trip.
9. Even with airline luggage tags, things can go wrong
Even if the airline luggage tags stay securely attached, things can still go wrong. A few possible scenarios, according to The Washington Post? Sometimes, a bag refuses to align properly for the scanner. Other times, a bag lands on the belt with its wheels down. Then it “squirms” around and causes problems for the bags behind it. Sometimes, a bag’s strap or tag catches in a belt and causes a jam.
TSA employees clear these jams quickly. However, several jams within an hour “can muck up the system and make bags late for their flights,” according to The Washington Post. Even airline luggage tags can’t solve every problem. So sometimes, baggage handlers can’t prevent every delay.
10. There’s a 1% chance that your bag won’t reach your destination when you do
USA Today reports that worldwide, there’s about a 1% chance that your bag won’t reach your destination at the same time that you do. “The system works perfectly 99% of the time,” the publication explains. When it doesn’t, the primary reason involves bags that handlers need to unload and transfer to a connecting flight within 60 minutes. For that reason, many frequent flyers recommend that you don’t book itineraries with tight connections (or that you forego checking your bag if you do).
Other mishaps also get the blame. Bags can get accidentally mislabeled. So you should give those airline luggage tags a quick once-over, just to make sure that the destination code looks right. Additionally, bags can end up on the wrong car. From there, they can hitch a ride on the wrong plane. And, unfortunately, some checked bags also get stolen.
11. The tag can help a delayed bag find its way to you
What happens to an “orphaned” bag that remains at the airport while you fly to your destination? According to USA Today, the airline may put it on the next flight and have it delivered to you. In the process, it will rely on the information on the luggage tag to get your bag to the right destination.
As for bags that lose their airline luggage tags? That complicates matters. In case of this, you should put your name and contact information somewhere on the outside (or inside) of your bag. That way, the airline can contact you.
If the airline can’t find your contact information, a reunion may never happen. Once a lost bag sits unclaimed for 90 days, the airline typically sells it to the Unclaimed Baggage Center in Alabama.
12. There’s no reliable way to get your bag quickly at baggage claim
The vast majority of checked bags make it to their destination on time. But you still have to wait — and wait, and wait — at baggage claim for your bag to show up. And according to Condé Nast Traveler, you can’t really get around the system. Loading and unloading systems vary by aircraft, airline, and baggage handling team. Some airlines load their planes with large crates of bags. Others store bags in the cargo hold as individual pieces. And TSA screening can throw things off.
One of the few reliable ways to get your bag first is to have elite status with the airline. Many airlines automatically give elite members priority baggage handling. Similarly, booking a seat in first or business class usually gets you priority baggage handling, too.
13. Some airlines allow you to track your bag’s progress
Thanks to those humble airline luggage tags, some airlines let you track your bag’s progress. (That means you’ll have one less thing to worry about as you board your flight.) Condé Nast Traveler reports that, in an effort to alleviate “passenger bag stress,” several airlines have added baggage tracking features to their apps.
Qatar Airways’ “Track My Bags” feature will tell you if your bag is at check-in, in transfer, or arriving at your destination. Delta’s baggage tracking feature will tell you where your bag is and where it’s headed. The app will even give you an estimated time for when it will arrive at baggage claim.
14. You shouldn’t pack valuables in your checked bag
Airline luggage tags and airport baggage systems have come a long way (just like that bag that’s accompanied you on cross-country and international flights). But you should still consider the risks when you check a bag. Smarter Travel recommends against packing valuables in your checked bags. Always avoid packing items that the TSA prohibits, and don’t use a non-TSA-approved lock.
Similarly, you should avoid traveling with an unmarked bag that looks exactly like everybody else’s luggage. Don’t get too close to the weight limit. Also, make sure the compartments and pockets on your bag are securely zipped and fastened. Don’t leave anything hanging out of or off of your bag. And if you can avoid it, don’t book a tight connection or short layover.
15. Choose your luggage carefully
If you have the room in your budget to upgrade your luggage, an airport baggage handler gave Condé Nast Traveler a few tips on what to look for. He recommends looking for a bag with a bottom handle, between the wheels. The extra handle helps ensure more gentle treatment for your bag. Choose structured luggage to protect your belongings. And always pack your bag full, so that it’s less vulnerable.
Additionally, the baggage handler recommends choosing a four-wheeled bag over one with only two wheels. Two-wheel luggage might get thrown or dragged if the baggage handling team is short on time. Four-wheel luggage glides more easily. And finally, go with small luggage tags (in addition to the airline luggage tags) if you want them to survive the trip.
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