Friday, August 07, 2009

What's on a baggage tag?

Very recently Alitalia managed to lose all my luggage twice in one week. Of course, when I say lose I simply mean delay. They did in the end (after days of delay) get it all back to me.

But it got me wondering about how baggage is tracked. I mentioned this in the office and a colleague said that he had heard from a guy working on RFID tagging of airline baggage that there was a little secret: the current bag numbers are too short for the volume of bags being handled.

Naturally, I decided to try to find out whether this was true.

Firstly, from a technical standpoint the numbers on baggage tags (called a 'license plate' in industry parlance) consist of 10 digit base-10 numbers. There are three separate fields: a three digit airline identifier (which is the numeric version of something like BA or AA and does not include flight number), a one digit field used by the airline and a six digit serial number. All of this is specified in IATA Resolution 740.

Here's an example given by the airline Malev



Item number 1 there is the baggage tag number (MA759235). It shows the airline identifier as letters (in this case MA instead of the three digit IATA code which would be 182). That is followed by the six digit bag serial number.

At the bottom under the bar code is that actual 10 digit IATA number which starts with 0 (that's the single digit the airline gets to use for its own purpose), then there's the airline code (182) and then the serial number: 0182759235.

The six digit number identifies the bag. With six digits the airline can have up to 1 million unique bags in their systems at any one time. So I instantly wondered how long it would be before an airline would reuse a bag number.

Wikipedia tells me that the largest number of passengers carried in 2007 was by Southwest Airlines with over 100m passengers. Just behind was American Airlines with 98m.

Making some wild assumptions: each passenger checks a single bag and the passengers are evenly distributed across the year that says that Southwest Airlines and American Airlines handle 1m bags every 4 days.

So then I wondered. What happens if my bag gets lost and it stays lost for too long. Does my number get reused? Does this have an effect on me getting it back?

For that I decided to go the traditional route and talk to the people who know: IATA, BATA and the airlines. I prepared an email with a sequence of questions around the story, introduced myself and this blog and sent off messages. I also considered buying the complete IATA regulations, but they are rather expensive.

The IATA and American Airlines simply did not reply. When I tried to register for access to the IATA web site my access was denied. British Airways kindly replied and told me that they couldn't comment on an 'industry-wide issue'. The British Air Transport Association replied and said they were too small to answer my questions which really needed to go to IATA.

The Civil Aviation Authority replied and told me that I was asking about a 'security issue' (oddly) and that I needed to ask the UK Department of Transport. They didn't reply.

At this point I realized why people get paid at newspapers: it takes time and money to investigate things. So, to save my time and money I mentioned this to someone I know who works at The Times in the UK. She took the bull by the horns and got the IATA on the phone.

To cut a long story short the IATA claims that this isn't a problem for two reasons: that single digit field can be used to turn 1m bags into 10m (this is up to the airlines to implement and it wasn't clear who is implementing that) and that reuse isn't a problem because if it does occur the system records the information about both people and flights using the same bag number (it was unclear from IATA exactly how long these records are held onto: they appeared to say six days).

But I'm not really satisfied. It would be nice to really know. Does number reuse occur in practice? And does it have an effect on the handling of delayed baggage?

Anyone out there work for an airline and want to give me the inside scoop?

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If you enjoyed this blog post, you might enjoy my travel book for people interested in science and technology: The Geek Atlas. Signed copies of The Geek Atlas are available.

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