Bag tags, also known as baggage tags, baggage checks or luggage tickets, have traditionally been used by bus, train and airline companies to route passenger luggage that is checked on to the final destination. The passenger stub is typically handed to the passenger or attached to the ticket envelope: a) to aid the passenger in identifying their bag among similar bags at the destination baggage carousel; b) as proof—still requested at a few airports—that the passenger is not removing someone else's bag from the baggage reclaim hall; c) as a means for the passenger and carrier to identify and trace a specific bag that has gone astray and was not delivered at the destination.
The first "separable coupon ticket" was patented by John Michael Lyons of Moncton, New Brunswick on June 5, 1882. The ticket showed the issuing station, the destination and a consecutive number for reference. The lower half of the ticket was given to the passenger, while the upper half, with a hole at the top, was inserted into a brass sleeve and then attached to the baggage by a strap.
At some point, reinforced paper tags were introduced. They are designed to not detach as easily as older tags during transport.
The Warsaw Convention of 1929, specifically article 4, established the criteria for issuing a baggage check or luggage ticket. This agreement also established limit of liability on checked baggage.
Prior to the 1990s, airline bag tags consisted of a paper tag attached with a string.
The tag contained basic information:
- Airline/carrier name
- flight number
- baggage tag number, composed of the two letter airline code and six digits
- destination airport code
These tags became obsolete as they offered little security and were easy to replicate.
Current bag tags include a bar code using the Interleaved 2 of 5 symbology. These bag tags are printed using thermal or barcode printer on an adhesive thermal paper stock. This printed strip is then attached to the luggage at check in. This allows for automated sorting of the bags by bar code readers.
There are two ways that bar code baggage tags are read; hand held scanners and in-line arrays. In-line arrays are built into the baggage conveyor system and use a 360 degree array of lasers to read the bar code tags from multiple angles as baggage and the orientation of the bar code tag can shift as it goes through the conveyor belt system. One of the limitations of this system is that to read bar codes from the bottom of the belt laser arrays are placed below the gap between two sections of conveyor belt. Due to the frequent build-up of debris and dust on these lower arrays the rate of successful reads can be low. Frequently, the "read rate", the percent of bar code tags successful read by these arrays can be as low as 85%. This means that more than one out of ten bar code baggage tags are not successfully read and these bags are shunted off for manual reading resulting in extra labour and delay.
For flights departing from an international airport within the European Union, bag tags are issued with green edges. Passengers are eligible to take these bags through a separate "Blue Channel" at Customs.
Bar codes can not be automatically scanned without direct sight and undamaged print. Forced by reading problems with poorly printed, obscured, crumpled, scored or otherwise damaged bar codes, some airlines have started using radio-frequency identification (RFID) chips embedded in the tags. In the US, McCarran International Airport has installed an RFID system throughout the airport. Hong Kong International Airport has also installed an RFID system. The International Air Transport Association (IATA) is working to standardize RFID bag tags.
British Airways are currently trialling the use of re-usable electronic luggage tags featuring electronic paper technology. The passenger has to check-in using the British Airways smartphone app, then the passenger holds their phone close the tag and it will transmit the flight details and barcode to the tag using NFC technology. As the tag utilises electronic paper, the battery only has to power the tag when the passenger is sending the data to the tag.
FastTrack Company have developed a re-usable electronic luggage tag product called the Eviate eTag. This is also electronic paper-based, but is not limited to a single airline. The passenger will check-in using a supported airline's smartphone app, then is able to send the relevant flight information to the tag via Bluetooth Low Energy.
Qantas introduced Q Bag Tags in 2011. Unlike the British Airways tags, they do not feature a screen which means there is no barcode to scan. This has limited the use of the tags to domestic flights within Australia on the Qantas network. The tags were initially given free of charge to members of the Qantas Frequent Flyer program with Silver, Gold or Platinum status. The tags can also be purchased for A$29.95.
The first automated baggage sorting systems were developed by Eastern Air Lines in the 1980s, first at their Miami International Airport hub. Other airlines soon followed with their own systems including United Air Lines, TWA, Delta and American Airlines. In the early days none of these systems were interchangeable. In some systems the bar code was used to represent a three letter destination airport code, in others a two digit sorting symbol telling the system which pier to deliver the bag to.
As a result of the bombing of Air India Flight 182 on June 23 1985 the airline industry, led by IATA, convened the Baggage Security Working Group (BSWG) to change the international standards to require passenger baggage reconciliation. The Chairman of the BSWG John Vermilye, of Eastern Airlines, proposed that the industry adopt the already proven License Plate system. This concept used the bar code to represent the baggage tag number and at check-in this number was associated with the passenger details including flight number, destination, connection information and could even include class of service to indicate priority handling. Working with Allen Davidson of Litton Industries with whom Eastern developed the license plate concept, the BSWG adopted the license plate concept as the common industry standard for passenger baggage reconciliation. Initially the bar code or license plate was used to facilitate matching baggage with passengers to ensure that only baggage of passengers who have boarded a flight are carried on the aircraft. This standard was adopted in IATA Resolution in 1987. By 1989 the license plate concept was expanded to become the industry standard for automated baggage sorting as well and at this time the bar codes were enlarged to facilitate automated reading. The bar code is shown in two different orientations or in a "T" shape called the "orthogonal" representation.
The term license plate is the official term used by the IATA, the airlines, and the airports for the 10-digit numeric code on a bag tag issued by a carrier or handling agent at check-in.
The license plate is printed on the carrier tag in bar code form and in human-readable form, as defined in Resolution 740 in the IATA Passenger Services Conference Resolutions Manual (published annually by IATA). Each digit in a license plate has a specific meaning. The license plate is an index number linking a bag to a Baggage Source Message (BSM) sent by a carrier's departure control system to an airport's baggage handling system. It is the message that contains the flight details and passenger information, thus enabling an automated baggage handling system to sort a bag automatically once it has scanned the bar code on the carrier tag. Thus these two things are essential for automated sorting of baggage. Note that the human-readable license plate may contain a 2-character IATA carrier code instead of an IATA 3-digit carrier code. For example, BA728359 instead of 0125728359, but the bar code will always be the full 10 digits (0125728359 in the example - 125 and BA being, respectively, the IATA 3-digit code and IATA 2-character code for British Airways). The first digit of a 10-digit license plate is not part of the carrier code. It can be in the range 0 to 9: 0 for interline or online tags, 1 for fallback tags (pre-printed or demand-printed tags only for use by the local baggage handling system if it cannot receive BSMs from a carrier's departure control system due to a fault in the latter or in communication between it and the baggage handling system, as defined in IATA Recommended Practice 1740b) and 2 for Rush tags. The purpose of numbers in the range 3 to 9 as the first digit of the 10-digit license plate is undefined by IATA but can be used by each carrier for its specific needs (commonly used as a million indicator for the normal 6-digit tag number).
Besides the license plate number, the tag also has:
- Name of airport of arrival
- Departure time
- IATA airport code of airport of arrival
- Airline code and flight number
- Name of passenger identified with the baggage (last name, first name)
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- Mario Theriault, Great Maritime Inventions 1833–1950, Goose Lane Editions, 2001, p. 63. 0864923244
- Patent filing
- "BA testing luggage tags made of electronic paper". BBC News.
- "Meet Eviate". www.eviate.com.
- "FastTrack's Vision for Smart Luggage—And Happier Flyers". www.iotjournal.com.
- "The Q Bag Tag - Qantas". qantas.com.au.
- IATA Passenger Services Conference Resolutions Manual (PSCRM), 33rd Edition, Resolution 740, section 5.1.2; however, this source does not speak to how airlines commonly use that digit. It just says that values 3 through 9 are for "interline and on-line use".