RFID Tags Can Find Stray Bags, But Can Airlines Afford Them?

RFID promises to be a simple solution for baggage handling, but is technology too expensive for cash-strapped airlines to integrate?

Moreover, keeping in mind forecasts that each piece of luggage may one day have a radio tag to track its movement from the manufacturer to the department store, airlines will need systems that do not get confused if a traveler forgets to remove such a tag after buying the bag.

There are also disagreements about the design for the tags. One group of airlines, led by carriers like Delta, American Airlines and United Airlines, favors tags that currently cost about 25 cents and function basically like license plates. They carry unique numbers that can be used for access to data about a bag's owner, origin and destination in central databases.

A number of European carriers favor more expensive but more versatile tags that can be directly encoded with such information when the bag is checked so that the data travels with the luggage.

The American approach is currently being introduced at McCarran International Airport in Las Vegas and at Hong Kong International Airport. McCarran is among the few major American airports where the airport administration, rather than the airlines, oversees baggage handling; some RFID specialists predict that the technology will spread more quickly in Europe and Asia, where decisions about technology investments rest primarily with airports, not airlines.

Narita Airport outside Tokyo, for example, has been experimenting with the more sophisticated radio tags. It is now planning a test with Air France and KLM that would attach RFID tags to luggage flying between Amsterdam and Tokyo and between Paris and Tokyo.

Eventually, domestic airlines may be forced to adopt RFID luggage tracking for security reasons. Radio tagging could help security officials quickly find individual bags for examination, even after they have been loaded on a plane. That has attracted the attention of the Transportation Security Administration, which is providing 75 percent of the $125 million going into building McCarran's new baggage management system. The first arm of the system is expected to begin operations in May.

The airline most eager for the radio tagging has been Delta, which in recent years has tumbled toward the bottom of the annual rankings of how effectively airlines handle luggage.

Delta, based in Atlanta, announced last June that it would invest $15 million to $25 million over two years to put radio tags on every bag it handles and to install electronic readers to scan the tags. The airline, which said it misdirected fewer than a million of the 80 million bags it handles in an average year, projected that the radio tag system would quickly pay for itself because the company spends $100 million annually dealing with luggage mistakes.

Delta also predicted that the technology could provide a marketing advantage.

"'It will be plainly obvious to the traveling public who has this and who doesn't,'' Robert Maruster, the Delta vice president in charge of the airline's hub in Atlanta, said last June.

But Delta quietly put the project on hold last fall as it struggled to avoid bankruptcy. ''We're not walking away from it,'' said Benet Wilson, a Delta spokeswoman. ''We're just postponing it indefinitely. We felt we could use our resources in other areas.''

Mrs. Suckling, who was married in a dress she hurriedly bought at a mall, might suggest customer service. She said that filing a compensation claim for the lost luggage involved dealing with a rude and unhelpful customer service agent based in India whose accent was hard to understand. That process made her angrier than the lost luggage.