I've seen price quotes for RFID chips ranging from less than a penny to a few cents each. But then there are the scanners and other equipment and possibly infrastructure adjustments, which can cost perhaps tens of millions of dollars (there are so many variables that a reliable figure is difficult to pin down). Needless to say, in this economy, investing tens of millions is daunting, to say the least.
But many industry analysts say it's well worth it. Samuel Ingalls, McCarran's assistant director of aviation for information systems, said the real cost benefit is the money saved on finding and re-routing lost luggage.
For example, last year at its peak, the Las Vegas airport was handling 70,000 bags a day. Now, consider that each lost bag costs close to $100 to recover and get back on track. Here's where it gets really interesting. According to Ingalls, the bar code scanning system is accurate about 90 percent of the time at best (and, sometimes, as low as in the 70s) while RFID has an accuracy rate of better than 99 percent. So with RFID technology, maybe 700 bags would get lost but with the bar code system, that figure could soar to 7,000, or maybe 10,000 or more. As they say, do the math.
Ingalls sees another benefit with RFID: marketing. He envisions a day when an airline will actually boast about its RFID, maybe along the lines of: "Chances are Pretty Darned Good You Won't Lose a Bag with XYZ Airlines!"
Plus, it's a survival technique, in a city like Las Vegas.
"We are a resort destination," Ingalls said, "and the airport is the first and last impression for our visitors. So we really do focus on customer service and nothing is more frustrating than to have a lost or mishandled bag."
It's possible that one day, we won't need tags at all. Reusable chips or "permanent tags" could be directly embedded into all of our luggage. But I'm getting ahead of myself.
So, where are we in the world of RFID for airline baggage?
Well, about three years ago, the International Air Transport Association (IATA) introduced a standard frequency for bag tags, which is vital if systems around the globe are to mesh. But when it comes to 100 percent RFID airports, there's McCarran and there's Hong Kong and, among U.S. airlines, there is some experimenting.
Here's an idea: Tell the airlines how you feel about this. You might want to add that because so many airlines are now charging you to check a bag, the least they can do for you is make sure your bag arrives at your destination when you do.
And if it takes a gazillion dollars to ensure this, well, isn't that roughly what the airlines are making off all those checked-bag fees?
This work is the opinion of the columnist and in no way reflects the opinion of ABC News.
Rick Seaney is one of the country's leading experts on airfare, giving interviews and analysis to news organizations, including ABC News, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Reuters, The Associated Press and Bloomberg. His Web site FareCompare.com offers consumers free, new-generation software, combined with expert insider tips to find the best airline ticket deal.