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Digital luggage tags promise no more lost bags; track your bag on your smartphone

LONDON -- Almost every airline traveler knows the feeling: handing your suitcase over at the airline check-in counter, watching it go down the conveyor belt - then hoping the bag makes it to your destination. Now, some airlines are preparing to roll out digital luggage bag technology that could make lost luggage an anxiety of the past. Not only that, it promises to reduce passenger waiting time in airport lines.

The airline digital luggage tags under development vary slightly, but share one theme: replace the long, sticky paper luggage tags airline agents loop around passenger suitcase handles with a hard, plastic reusable luggage tag. The digital tag, or e-tag, uses the same electronic ink technology as a Kindle or electronic reader to display the bar code, passenger name and other flight information.

British Airways has a light-blue colored digital bag prototype that communicates with the airline's app on a passenger's smartphone. The idea, says BA digital products and services developer Martin Thomas, is that passengers who already use the BA app to book flights and check-in online, or to display their mobile boarding pass, should also have the power to pre-tag their luggage before heading to the airport.

"They walk into the front door of the terminal and they are ready to fly," says Thomas. He says BA's current digital tag could undergo additional tweaks. But he won't say how much it will cost.

British Airways started testing its digital luggage tag on Seattle-to-London flights last October, and hopes to introduce the tag to a larger audience by the end of the year. The airline's primary audience is the frequent flier who doesn't want to spend time in line with less experienced fliers, to check-in luggage. BA says it aims have a dedicated area for digital luggage tag users for drop-off-and-go service.

"If I can save you five or six minutes every time you fly, by having one of these [digital bag tags], that means something," Thomas says. "We want to give control to the customer."

Digital luggage tag developer The FastTrack company says its products under development for Air France-KLM give even more control to fliers. FastTrack's e-Tag digital luggage tag, and supplemental e-Track - a small, smooth tracking device that goes inside passenger's luggage - allows fliers to check in their own luggage and trace it if it goes missing.

"The e-Track is connected to the internet. With your mobile phone, you can see where your luggage is anywhere in the world," says David van Hoytema, FastTrack's founder and CFO. The devices can be used individually, or combined to ease the process of checking-in and reuniting with lost checked in luggage.

Air France-KLM is already promoting the devices in a video on its social media pages. It is expected the devices will be available to consumers during 2014 - though it is not clear how much passengers will pay for the e-Tag or e-Track.

While airlines don't want to appear to concede that bags don't always make every flight, lost luggage is a air travel reality. FastTrack says passengers want real-time information on where their missing luggage may be.

"Basically, you are not dependent on what the airline wants to do [to track your luggage], or when they want to do it," says van Hoytema.

Digital luggage tag developers and airlines say they are working with International Air Transport Authority and security services to ensure the devices can eventually be used across different airlines, different routes and at different airports.

The applications of digital tag technology may extend outside airlines: one brand-name luggage manufacturer says it is working with digital luggage tag developers to come up with a new suitcase product line that features digital tags built into the luggage.

Follow Alphonso Van Marsh on Twitter: @AlphonsoVM

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