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October 5, 2012

Slate: The airline baggage tag is a masterpiece of design

(Continued)

What's next for bag tags? RFID tagging, which allows bags to be identified wirelessly: Think electronic toll collection on highways. Hong Kong, an early adopter, deployed RFID tags airport-wide in 2008. Until most airports can handle RFID tags, however, RFID tags can't replace today's standard bag tags. An early work-around was to add an extra RFID sticker to bags; now, the RFID tag can be embedded in the standard ABT loop tag. Other bag tag developments include self-tagging at the airport, as well as home-printed bag tags. But home-tagging passengers have to fold the tag into a plastic display case — hardly a high-tech solution.

In the very long term, perhaps the answer is the permanent bag tag — a durable, RFID-equipped tag that's yours to keep and attach to whatever bag you'd like to check in. Launched in Australia in 2010 for certain domestic flights, permanent tags make checking in a bag nearly painless. But these permanent tags can't go global until everyone's ready to use them. And there's no manual backup.

Permanent tags may offer one unexpected and welcome advantage. Melissa Keiser, the Smithsonian's archivist, laments that by the 1950s, practical concerns eliminated the last vestiges of beauty from luggage tags. But with permanent tags, the RFID mechanism is hidden inside, and there's no need for any data or machine-readable codes to appear on the tag itself. If permanent tags ever do go global, then in one sense they'll be a return to the golden age of travel: There'll be no excuse for them to not look good.

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