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The Sensible Traveler

Baggage tracking goes high tech

Email|Print| Text size + By Bruce Mohl
Globe Staff / November 16, 2003

Airline bag tags, those strips of self-adhesive paper with an abbreviation of the traveler's destination on them, are going high tech.

Several airlines have begun testing radio frequency identification technology on bag tags in a bid to improve security and track down lost luggage. Delta Airlines, after testing the technology for a month, on flights from Jacksonville, Fla., to Atlanta, will likely announce tomorrow that they will begin rolling out the system on all flights.

The bag-tag technology is similar to the EZ Pass used by the Massachusetts Turnpike Authority. A tiny chip with a unique signature is embedded in the tag, enabling readers using radio frequencies to identify the tag if it passes within 20 feet, or less if there is some sort of interference in the way.

The readers will be positioned all along the baggage handling system, enabling airlines to track the progress of a bag from check-in until retrieval.

''The test in Jacksonville is complete and it was an operational success. We are very encouraged by the results, which are still in review," said Katie Connell, a Delta spokeswoman. She declined to give specifics of tomorrow's announcement in Atlanta.

The new bag tags would help counter terrorism by making sure that any passenger who fails to board a flight cannot get a bag on board. Many airlines have grumbled about bag matching in the past because it can be time-consuming to implement, but radio frequency identification should speed up the process by making it easier not only to track bags during boarding but also to retrieve them quickly if necessary.

Airlines say the new technology should also make it easier to sort bags by destination and track them down if they get lost by identifying where they were last seen in the baggage handling system.

Sanjay Sarma, an associate professor of mechanical engineering at MIT and one of the early pioneers of radio frequency identification, said all the major airlines have been experimenting with radio frequency identification, but Delta appears to be the first to deploy the technology.

Sarma said the cost of the chips to be embedded in luggage tags depends on the volume of purchases. He estimated they would cost about 30 to 50 cents apiece if purchased by the millions, but as little as 10 cents apiece if purchased in the billions.

Delta officials say radio frequency identification is just one example of how it is using technology to improve the flying experience. The airline has also installed special equipment that would enable passengers affected by flight cancellations to quickly get a boarding pass for a new flight without being forced to wait in line for a customer service representative.

Connell gave the example of a passenger flying from Boston to Miami with a stop in Atlanta who gets temporarily stranded there because of bad weather.

Normally, the passenger would have to go through the booking process again to get on the next flight from Atlanta to Miami. Now, Connell said, the airline automatically books passengers on the next flight and allows them to obtain a boarding pass for that flight by simply passing their old ticket or frequent flier card under a gate reader. She said it will not be long before these same gate readers will dispense hotel and meal vouchers as well.

Full disclosure

a fine thing

G. Neil Harper of Belmont thinks Orbitz, the online travel agency, isn't fully disclosing all the costs associated with renting a car at the time of booking. Harper reserved a car on Orbitz for pickup at London's Heathrow Airport. The cost, including taxes and additional charges, listed on his invoice turned out to be half the amount he actually had to pay because the invoice did not include the cost of mandatory daily liability insurance coverage.

Harper said he told the rental car company agent that his credit card provided the insurance coverage, but the agent insisted credit card coverage was not adequate. Harper paid the insurance cost, but after the trip asked Orbitz to refund the surprise charges.

Orbitz spokeswoman Terry Shank said that during the booking process customers are invited to review a series of items about the rental, including the rules, terms, and conditions. Clicking through to ''See complete rules and regulations," one finds a disclosure about the mandatory insurance coverage. Returning to the previous page, the customer must click ''agree and continue."

Shank said Orbitz contacted the rental car company, which agreed to refund Harper's money if his credit card would have indeed provided the insurance coverage. She said Harper never pursued that option.

Orbitz disclosed the insurance charge, but did so in a way that only the most diligent consumers would find it. Reading the fine print is a customer's responsibility, but Orbitz should alert customers how important it is.

Bruce Mohl can be reached at mohl@globe.com.

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