Feb. 11, 2009 -- 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.
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?
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.
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.
Chips for Your Luggage
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.