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Electronic bag tags are ready for take

Jun 01, 2023Jun 01, 2023

by Todd Bishop on February 15, 2023 at 7:28 amFebruary 15, 2023 at 7:41 am

Walking into Sea-Tac Airport for a Friday afternoon flight, I glanced smugly at the people huddled around the Alaska Airlines self-serve kiosks to print bag tags. I wouldn't be wasting my time in that crowd, not on this day.

OK, sure, I still had to wait in line to drop off my bag. But my bag tag was attached to my luggage and ready before I arrived at the airport. In fact, it had been on my bag for several weeks, for multiple flights to different destinations.

That is because it's an electronic bag tag. The 3- by 5-inch device, made by the Dutch company BAGTAG, is powered by Near-Field Communication (NFC) from a smartphone, just long enough for a Bluetooth Low Energy connection to update the E-Ink display (the same technology used in Kindles and other e-readers) when checking in for a flight on the airline's app.

After that, the electronic tag stays on the screen until it's updated for your next flight.

Alaska is the first U.S. airline to introduce an electronic bag tag, along with some European and Asian carriers. Alaska has provided the device to about 2,500 elite Mileage Plan members, and says it plans to make the electronic bag tag available for purchase by all mileage plan members sometime in the first half of this year.

The airline hasn't said how much it will charge for the electronic bag tag when it rolls out more broadly, but the industry norm is a $60-to-$70 one-time charge.

Here are the key takeaways from my experience:

Keep reading for more details.

My luggage has arrived consistently (and on time) at my destination.

For now, this is primarily a testament to the fact that the E-Ink tags work reliably, and not because of any big technological leaps in bag tracking. (I also had the good fortune of avoiding any of the holiday travel delays.)

The electronic bag tags do contain an RFID transmitter that could ultimately make it easier for the airline to track and route bags, but that will require infrastructure upgrades at many U.S. airports.

In the meantime, the main selling point of the electronic bag tags is pre-flight convenience. Alaska previously offered a print-at-home bag tag option, but many travelers used inkjet printers to create those tags, which frequently made them unreadable, requiring agents to reprint them, ultimately complicating rather than simplifying matters.

Separately, later this year, Alaska plans to start letting passengers track bags through the system in its mobile app. But the airline will do this by manually scanning bar codes, and by using sortation systems. This tracking system will work with both paper tags (printed at the airport) and the new electronic bag tags.

In other words, the electronic bag tags are primarily an upgrade for the former print-at-home bag tag program, with the bonus of embedded RFID technology that could enable new tracking capabilities in the future.

The software works well, but the experience isn't 100% smooth yet.

After initially struggling to make the electronic bag tag work with my phone, I learned that my bulky smartphone case was blocking the NFC connection needed to wirelessly power the electronic bag tag hardware when I held the phone against it.

As soon as I took the smartphone case off and held the back of the phone flush against the electronic bag tag, it worked, quickly updating the E-Ink display with the bar code and flight info. I’ve found that I need to take the case off each time I go through the process of updating the tag for a new flight. Not ideal, but also not the worst thing in the world.

Once you’ve registered your bag tag the first time, using the email address associated with your Alaska Airlines account, the app asks you on each subsequent check-in if you’d like to use your electronic bag tag.

It feels at times like there are one or two more taps and confirmations than necessary in the app, but this is something that could be streamlined over time.

On my most recent trip, I also encountered a glitch referenced in this Alaska Airlines FAQ, where the app told me that the bag tag had been updated successfully before it had actually updated, causing me to remove my phone too soon. I went back through the process and held the phone against the bag tag for a few seconds after getting the confirmation, and it worked. Alaska says it's working to resolve this bug.

Those are minor hiccups in the scheme of things, and Alaska will no doubt smooth out most or all of these issues prior to the broader rollout. None of them ever kept me from getting the bag tag to work.

Once you’ve got a new bar code and flight info onto the device, they remain on the E-Ink screen until the next time you take a flight and update the electronic bag tag.

For now, the bag tags only work on flights marketed by Alaska Airlines (those operated by Alaska, Horizon and SkyWest on behalf of Alaska). My tests were conducted entirely on Horizon regional flights, and I didn't use them on any connecting flights within Alaska's system.

In the long run, the technology is designed to be interoperable. As more carriers roll out electronic bag tags, and establish agreements with each other, it could eventually be possible, for example, to use them for cross-country trips involving flights on multiple airlines.

The bag tag hardware is sturdy and very secure — almost too secure.

This isn't the first time Alaska has tried electronic bag tags. In 2015, the airline tested another type that used a nylon cord to attach to the luggage, increasing the likelihood of theft or loss.

This earlier version was also powered by internal batteries that gave it a shelf life of only a year or two. Given those factors, at roughly $100 per device, the economics for that earlier electronic bag tag didn't work, explained Gus Naughton, a software engineer in Alaska's Emerging Technologies group.

In the new version, the NFC power from the phone solves the battery issue.

And the tag attaches to the luggage with an industrial-strength ziptie-style strap. It's so secure that I initially struggled to take it off my luggage. Releasing the strap requires pushing a small screwdriver into a hole above the strap, but it's clamped so firmly that it requires significant leverage against the mechanism while simultaneously pulling on the strap. I got it to work after Naughton assured me that I wasn't going to break it. (More on that below.)

It comes with a small removal tool but I found that completely ineffective. Naughton said the next iteration of electronic bag tags will have a slightly thinner strap and better removal tool to address these issues.

The good news in the meantime: if you’re using this on just one piece of luggage, you can just leave the electronic bag tag attached in between trips. And good luck to anyone who tries to steal one of these things without being noticed at baggage claim.

Naughton is a software engineer who has been at Alaska for 3-and-a-half years, working on projects ranging from Alaska's online flight sales and flight status page, to the problem of items left on board by passengers.

He said the new electronic bag tags were a project that grew out of the Emerging Technologies team, attracted wider internal attention, and brought people together from across the airline for testing and development.

"One of the things that I really enjoy about my job at Alaska, specifically, is the fact that I can actually go into the operation and see physically how my software impacts people in reality," he said.

Naughton has traveled with the electronic bag tags extensively to test them. In addition, Alaska has tested the limits of the physical hardware, including running over the electronic bag tags with airport trucks and luggage carts — not that this would happen under normal circumstances, he assured me! — but to check their durability.

"These devices are functional throughout all that," he said.

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by Todd Bishop My luggage has arrived consistently (and on time) at my destination The software works well, but the experience isn't 100% smooth yet. The bag tag hardware is sturdy and very secure — almost too secure. GeekWire co-founder Todd Bishop GeekWire Daily GeekWire Weekly Breaking News Alerts GeekWire Startups GeekWire Mid-week Update GeekWire Local Deals