Lost luggage less likely with new tracking systems

By | December 26th, 2016

Do luggage tracking systems work? You bet.

Will they keep your checked bag from disappearing the next time you fly? Maybe.

True, sophisticated new technologies are being introduced that track your belongings from airport to airport. The latest is Delta Air Lines’ $50 million system, which uses Radio Frequency ID (RFID) cards to keep tabs on your luggage. And fewer checked bags are vanishing as a result. The global airline industry’s mishandled baggage rate fell to 6.5 bags per thousand passengers last year, down 10.5% from 2014 year and less than half the rate in 2003, according to the information technology company Sita.

But don’t rely on your airline to track your bags the next time you fly, and even if it does, you shouldn’t assume it’ll always work. In fact, there are far more reliable ways to ensure your belongings don’t get lost than trusting your airline.

The most obvious way — and one that virtually all of the gee-whiz news coverage of tracking systems has missed — is to never hand your checked bag over to an airline. Pack light and tight and use the overhead compartment. It’s easy to keep tabs on your bag. Just open the bin to make sure it’s still there. Problem solved.

If you must check your bag, consider tracking it yourself. The most popular methods are long-range tracking solutions like LugLock and Trakdot, and new luggage with built-in sensors.

Jeffrey Kolker has used Trakdot, a $49 gadget (service fee not included) that uses cellular technology to keep tabs on his valuables. “It works,” says Kolker, an accountant from Pryor, Okla. Except when it doesn’t. In order to use Trakdot’s mobile app, you need cellular service or access to Wi-Fi. On a recent flight to Italy, when his bag was lost, he had neither.

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“It didn’t matter,” he says. “The batteries on the Trakdot were dead.”

Oh well.

Experts say the next evolutionary step in tracking technology is luggage with the systems already built in. “It’s a trend,” says Michele Marini Pittenger, president of the Travel Goods Association, a trade group that represent the luggage industry. The bags, called “smart” luggage, use a variety of technologies, including global positioning (GPS) and Bluetooth, to round up lost bags.

The biggest names in smart luggage are Bluesmart and Raden. Bluesmart’s One carry-on ($449), for example, uses integrated GPS technology to follow your valuables, with no monthly service fee. Raden’s A22 Carry ($295) uses Bluetooth technology to track your bag in an airport. Both have their own apps that can find and even weigh your luggage.

You shouldn’t have to embed tracking technology into a carry-on, but then, you can’t be too careful these days. Who knows when you’ll get stuck on a puddlejumper with limited overhead space or run into the most feared flight attendant in the skies, Ms. Gatecheck? By all accounts, the luggage works. I searched far and wide for someone who had lost one of these trackable bags and couldn’t find one (if you’re out there, please let me know).

In a perfect world, your airline would know where your checked bag is at all times. But it’s a process. When Patti Pizzimenti flew from Hartford, Conn., to Myrtle Beach, S.C., recently, American Airlines lost her luggage. But Pizzimenti, a retired medical worker who lives in Hartford, fired up her American Airlines app, located her luggage, and was promptly reunited with it. American’s system used its conventional barcode scanners to check luggage at various locations, but its app is an important intermediate step toward tracking all bags.

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After Sharon Cassell missed her connecting flight from Wilmington, N.C., to Stockholm recently, a Delta representative assured her that her bags, which were being tracked by its new system, had safely arrived at her destination. Actually, they were still in Atlanta, an airport she would get to know well during the next two days while she waited for a flight to become available. Eventually, the airline sent her to Stockholm via New York. “Fortunately both pieces of luggage were on the carousel when we arrived,” she says.

Problems aside, tracking technology can reduce the loss rate to practically zero, once all the bugs are worked out. The new RFID-based technologies can raise the delivery of bags to near 99 percent accuracy from an industry average of around 80 percent based on current optical scanning technology, says Pankaj Shukla, a director of market development for Zebra Technologies. “This also improves customer satisfaction,” he adds.

Sita expects that by next year, about two thirds of all airlines will offer real-time updates on the location of their bags, most of them via smartphone app. That’s progress, but not enough. Losing or misplacing a bag or two per flight is still a bag or two too many, especially when it’s yours. Until these systems become the standard, and are fully tested, you’re better off tracking your own luggage. Or not letting it out of your sight.

How to prevent your checked luggage from getting lost

Prep your bag. Arrive at the airport with plenty of time to check in. Your bag should be packed properly, flight-ready and labeled with a tag. Watch the gate agent place the tag on your bag and make sure the airport code matches your final destination. “If you can, take a picture of your bag in case it’s lost so you have all the details to complete the forms at baggage claim,” says Todd Penny, founder of GoCodes, a tracking software company.

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Mark it. Why is almost all luggage black? No one knows. But it’s a good enough reason to make your black luggage stand out. If you want to make a fashion statement, try a luggage identifier like Pom-ID ($9 from Pomchies.com) a colorful Nylon/Spandex pom-pom that sets your bag apart. Or you could go old school and use neon duct tape, as I do. The results are the same: No one will mistake it for their bag and walk off with it at the carousel.

Fly an airline that does it well. Among the domestic carriers, airlines like JetBlue and Virgin America have some of the best records for keeping your luggage, and among the legacy airlines Delta Air Lines has a great reputation. Discount airlines or regional operators like Skywest Airlines and Expressjet Airlines tend to lose more luggage.

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