Lost luggage less likely with new tracking systems

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.

Related story:   Denied a lost luggage claim on a technicality -- can you help?

“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.

Related story:   Aeroflot is ignoring our reimbursement request. Can you help?

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.

Related story:   Are airline fees being fairly disclosed?

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.

Christopher Elliott

Christopher Elliott is an author, journalist and consumer advocate. You can read more about him on his personal website or check out his adventures on his family adventure travel site. Contact him at chris@elliott.org. Read more of Christopher's articles here.

  • Stephen0118

    Southwest Airlines (and I think some others) now have you self-tag your bag. When I flew Southwest a few weeks ago to NY, I checked in at the kiosk, told it how many bags I was checking and it printed out the bag tag and I had to put it on myself. It was up to me to make sure that it’s going to the right place. The only thing the agent had to do was put a transfer tag on it (since I was connecting at MDW) and put it on the conveyor.

  • BubbaJoe123

    “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”

    This is an interesting metric, but not exactly the one I’d want. The really relevant metric is mishandled bag rate per thousand CHECKED BAGS. I would guess (and I might be wrong) that checked bags per passenger has also declined since 2003 (due in large part to checked bag fees), so the metric cited above would be down, even if the airlines hadn’t gotten any better at baggage handling.

  • PsyGuy

    Don’t check baggage, problem solved.

  • Mark

    Be sure to use luggage tags which allow you to change the address labels each time you use public transportation, i.e. planes,trains, ships, etc. NEVER use a luggage tag with you home address. Why? If your luggage doesn’t arrive with your mode of transportation, the carrier will ship it back to your home address as they have no idea where you will be at your destination to be able to deliver it to you. Not good. Instead, use the address(s) of the next destination. If you have multiple destinations over a period of time, print a list of each destination beginning with the first one then in chonological order by date of arrival. Once you reach the first destination, refold the list so that your next destination appears in the luggage tag window.
    On a trip to Rome many years ago, our luggage didn’t arrive with us. About midnight on the day of our arrival, our bags showed up at our hotel, our luggage tags having the hotel address.
    As an aside, I always put two luggage tags on each bag in case one gets torn off.

  • Kerr

    So no baggage tracking system is acceptable to CE unless it operates perfectly? Does he apply that standard to all other areas of his life?

Get smart. Sign up for the newsletter.