No More Lost Bags: The One-Step Solution

You've seen the encouraging stats: The rate of "mishandled" luggage for several airlines was down overall in 2008, compared to the previous year. And that's how it should be, especially now that we're paying those insufferable bag fees.

Unfortunately, those bag fees guarantee nothing. You can pay and pay and still take your turn at playing, "Have You Seen My Bag?"

But some airports and airlines are attempting to change the whole system of baggage handling, which just might -- might -- keep your bags with you for good.

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Fixing the decades-long issue of lost baggage starts with a riddle: There's a Wal-Mart in Fresno, a heifer in Michigan and a Samsonite in Vegas. What do they all have in common?

Simple: RFID.

Well, maybe it's not so simple; after all, RFID, or "radio frequency identification" technology, is what Wal-Mart uses to keep track of millions of items on pallets in its huge warehouses, while Michigan requires all its cattle be tagged with RFID chips to help identify sources of disease and more.

But here's where air travel comes in: Passengers departing from McCarran International in Las Vegas will also find RFID on their checked luggage. The chips help to keep those bags moving in the right direction. Terrific, but will it keep your Samsonite from getting lost? We'll get to that.

But, first, how does RFID work?

Imagine a small, integrated circuit that stores data (a tiny little gizmo about the size of a sesame seed) that's surrounded by a small antenna. That's an RFID chip. Some come with built-in batteries, and some don't. Some can be reused and some are disposable. The lifespan for the lowliest RFID chip is said to be decades.

Now, picture this chip embedded in a tag, like the adhesive baggage tag you get at the airport. Chances are, you'll never notice the difference between a bag tag embedded with an RFID chip and a regular one.

In Las Vegas' McCarran airport, several scanners note and record a bag's progress as it makes its journey from curbside or counter to just before it gets loaded onto the plane, a journey that includes some of the Las Vegas airport's four miles of conveyor belts.

RFID Vs. Bar Codes

Why RFID and not the bar code system? For one thing, a bar code scanner must directly scan a bar code -- a direct line-of-sight is required -- whereas an airport employee with a hand-held RFID scanner could, in theory, simply stand near a pile of, oh, say 300 bags and, bingo, the scanner would immediately find the specific bag it's looking for. No tedious (and costly) sorting through bag after bag, a process that could literally take hours.

Unfortunately, and you knew this was coming, didn't you, once McCarran bags reach the end of Transportation Security Administration processing, the job of the RFID there is effectively over. That's because after the security processing is finished, the feds turn the bags over to the airlines and, for the most part, airlines don't have RFID. So whether your bag actually makes it on the plane it's supposed to is out of the airport's hands.

I know, stinks, doesn't it? But, hang on. United, for one, is now testing an RFID plastic tag system for its bags and other airlines are said to be interested. One major hurdle: It's expensive to overhaul an entire baggage tracking system.

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