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Baggage Tags: Masterpieces of Design and Engineering

Buzz Poole
10/16/2012 - 06:26
Baggage tags old and new, via Slate

Fly enough and you know what it's like to lose luggage. Or in Mark Vanhoenaker's words from a recent piece in Slate: "Every frequent traveler will at some point face the drifting tumbleweed on the baggage belt." Vanhoenaker is a pilot and has written a deeply appreciative and interesting ode to the baggage tag, replete with a slide show that tracks the visual history of these printed materials over the years. The important point he makes right off the bat is that while we all have our stories of woe about arriving someplace without clean clothes and a toothbrush, it isn't because airlines lose lots of bags; it's because we fly quite a bit. According to Vanhoenaker, 53 million passengers flew on US domestic flight this past July and only 1/3 of one percent "reported a mishandled bag."

In setting up the history of these tracking devices Vanhoenaker begins with ships and how destination tags affixed to trunks served as models for the earliest airline baggage tags. But during the days of early air travel, only the wealthy were able to afford the luxury and their staff were usually on hand to personally unload luggage from the underbelly of a plane.

As flight became a more common mode of transport for people across the world, the tags evolved to resemble their modern day incarnation, otherwise known as "automated baggage tag" or ABT. As Vanhoenaker notes, not only does the ABT have to be trackable and readable by scanners making sure your bag makes all of its connections but it must also withstand the elements: "In the interconnected, automated, all-weather world of modern aviation, tags must be resistant to cold, heat, sunlight, ice, oil, and especially moisture. Tags also can’t tear—and crucially, if they’re nicked, they must not tear further—as the bag lurches through mechanized airport baggage systems. And the tag must be flexible, inexpensive, and disposable."

The result, as Vanhoenaker sees it, is "a masterpiece of design and engineering" that when you crunch the numbers works incredibly well. That said, no one likes being a statistic and when you end up on the wrong side of data the sting from the experience can be that much more harsh.

Who has any good stories about lost luggage? 

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