The airline couldn’t find my luggage — luckily I had Apple AirTags

May 22, 2022

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Apple AirTags are an affordable — and effective — bag tracking system. I recently put them to the test during an international flight when my bag was temporarily missing.

Like most frequent travelers, I never check a bag if I don’t have to. I research the aircraft type and try to book a flight on an aircraft with large overhead bins that can accommodate more bags. Of course, on smaller regional jets, I will part with my carry-on bag reluctantly (and preferably planeside). Even though the chances of a bag being misplaced — or usually just delayed — are still relatively low, I don’t like to check my bag. Of course, that changes on longer trips or, in this particular case, on ski vacations.

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In This Post

Bag tracking today

Major airlines across the globe — and especially in the U.S. — have added new technologies that enable a passenger to track a specific bag at various stages of its journey. I used to work for a major U.S. airline and was part of the team that rolled out the technology that provided real-time baggage tracking information; the real-time information even allows passengers to file a missing-baggage report before they even arrive at the baggage claim. While many airlines just rely on scanning the barcode at numerous points during a bag’s journey from check-in to baggage claim, the use of radio-frequency identification, or RFID, has expanded. Some airlines are also using other real-time tracking devices for pets.

While passengers might only see the scans of bags at specific points on a bag’s journey, behind the scenes the airlines usually have additional scan points that provide even greater details, especially if a bag is mishandled.

Related: What to do when your luggage is delayed or lost by an airline

Early real-time bag trackers

I am an avid skier and spend each year traveling to various ski resorts, some domestic and some international. Arriving at my ski destination without my skis, boots or clothing can ruin the entire trip. As a result, I am meticulous about how I pack for a ski vacation. I pack my ski boots in my carry-on bag as well as enough ski gear to ensure I can ski upon arrival, even if my checked bags have been delayed.

To say I am anxious at the baggage claim when waiting for my ski gear is an understatement. So back in 2013, I was excited when Trakdot officially launched at the Consumer Electronics Show. This device, which at the time cost around $50 as well as another $13 a year for the 2G cellular connection (a very good deal in my opinion), would be placed in your checked bag and provide real-time cellular tracking. The device was able to determine a bag’s location via the quad-band GSM chip and triangulation.

According to Trakdot’s news release in 2013: “The luggage locator system delivers city-specific information on the whereabouts of checked baggage in real time. Even if the Trakdot protected bag does not reach the desired destination, passengers will still have the reassurance of knowing which city their luggage is in. Once the device is registered on the Trakdot website and placed inside a checked bag, it will deliver location information directly to the user’s mobile phone or SMS device via text or email. Alternatively, travelers can track their luggage on Trakdot.com or use the free Trakdot Luggage app. An additional app alerts passengers as their baggage approaches on the carousel, making it easier than ever for them to find their bag.”

A file photo of GPS luggage tracker TrakDot. (Photo courtesy of Trackdot/Facebook)

Allegedly the device would automatically turn off (or go into airplane mode) when the aircraft took off, and automatically reactivate upon landing (in compliance with Federal Aviation Administration regulations). As a user of this device for a few years, it worked occasionally, but not always. Here is what a notification would look like when the Trakdot would reconnect to a cellular network and triangulate your position:

From: Trakdot@globatrac.com
Subject: Trakdot Notification

Your Trakdot is in Charlotte-Douglas International Airport (CLT), 5501 R C Josh Birmingham Parkway, Charlotte.  If you are at this location and it is your final destination, proceed to baggage claim to pick up your luggage.  If you are at your final destination, but it is not the location of your Trakdot luggage, then proceed to your carrier’s Baggage Claim Office and arrange for the luggage to be sent to you from Charlotte-Douglas International Airport (CLT), 5501 R C Josh Birmingham Parkway, Charlotte. Battery: Good

In early 2017, the service ended as 2G connectivity ended. According to the company: “It has now been confirmed that major telecom providers have discontinued providing connectivity service for 2G devices … it is now confirmed that as of September 30, 2018, the connectivity service of the Trakdot 2G device is no longer available from its primary service provider. The Trakdot device itself remains functional, it is the 2G connectivity service that is no longer available; therefore, the Trakdot device ceases to operate.”

How AirTags work

Last year, TPG reported about AirTags, and TPG’s Andrew Kunesh also put them to the test.

As Andrew wrote, “AirTag is Apple’s new Bluetooth tracking device. You can attach the device to anything you own and it will passively keep track of its location whenever it pings a nearby Apple device. This can happen with your iPhone or someone else’s iPhone or iPad — there’s no cellular or GPS chip in the AirTag itself. This works well because of the sheer number of iOS devices out there. So, if you lose your keys on the subway, chances are someone else with an iPhone will be nearby. If your keys are attached to an AirTag, it will ping their location off that iPhone and report the location back to you. No personal data is transmitted in the process. You can view the location of your AirTags in the Find My app alongside your iOS devices.”

AirTags are only compatible with iPhone 11, iPhone 11 Pro, iPhone 11 Pro Max, iPhone 12, iPhone 12 mini, iPhone 12 Pro, iPhone 12 Pro Max, iPhone 13, iPhone 13 mini, iPhone 13 Pro and iPhone 13 Pro Max. Sorry Android users.

Related: Apple wants to make sure that you never lose track of your luggage again

(Photo courtesy of Apple)

My ski trip adventure with AirTags

For the most recent ski season, I decided to invest in some AirTags to place not only in my checked bags but also in my carry-on bags and my backpack. One AirTag is $29, and a pack of four is $99. It is important to note that having an AirTag in a checked bag doesn’t violate any FAA regulations.

I recently traveled from New York with two checked bags: my ski bag with my actual skis and poles (and some clothing) and a second bag of ski gear that I would need for this trip. Once I checked my bags in New York, I received an automated alert that my two checked bags were no longer with me, which is the standard message once you are separated from the AirTags registered to your iPhone. An hour later, I was able to confirm on my iPhone that my checked bags were with me — just in the cargo hold of the Boeing 777. This was also confirmed via the airline’s mobile app.

Soon, I landed in Madrid to board a connecting flight. Since I was on two separate tickets, my bags weren’t able to be checked through, and I was required to pick them up at the baggage claim. I wasn’t worried about this process, as I had plenty of time for the connection. My bag with my ski gear came out relatively quickly. According to the airline’s mobile app, this bag was offloaded at 8:38 a.m. and arrived at the baggage claim at 8:50 a.m. — I believe it was a drop later than that. Still, relatively quickly.

However, my skis were nowhere to be seen, even though they had a similar offload time, and the airline’s mobile app and website showed they had arrived at the baggage claim at 8:50 a.m.

Around 9:30 a.m., I started to get nervous — I was the only one left waiting at the carousel and oversize bag area. Where were my skis? By this time, I had already opened the Find My app on my iPhone and saw my skis were actually located at my arrival gate. However, they hadn’t moved since my flight had arrived nearly an hour earlier. I approached the baggage customer service office, where the agent repeated what I saw on the airline’s mobile app: Both of my bags were at the baggage claim.

screenshot of bag location
The location of my ski bag. (Screenshot by Ross Feinstein)

 

I decided to show the agent my phone, which showed the actual location of my skis: planeside. She was first impressed that I had this level of detail about my bag’s location (which was six minutes old per my iPhone), and she immediately started calling around to figure out why the bag was still planeside. It turned out that I had the only oversize bag on my flight, and the contractor who was supposed to bring up my bag was unaware that it was waiting for a transport from the plane to the oversize baggage belt in the baggage claim. A few minutes later, my ski bag finally appeared, and I made my connecting flight — with both bags in tow — without any further issues.

screenshot of bag location
My location with my other bags relative to my ski bag. (Screenshot by Ross Feinstein)

 

But what would I have done if I didn’t have an AirTag in my ski bag? According to my mobile app, both of my bags were delivered to the baggage claim at 8:50 a.m. While I didn’t think my ski bag was stolen, I recently saw a news story where a delivery driver stole nearly $10,000 worth of ski gear. (If this skier had had an AirTag, he would have been able to see his bag in real time, as long as the bag was in close proximity to an iPhone.)

In Madrid, I likely would have just filed a claim and continued on to my connecting flight, as the last airline scan indicated the bag had arrived at the baggage claim. As a result, I would have arrived at my final destination without all of my ski gear. And who knows how long it would have taken to send my bag from Madrid to France. But in this case, I knew where my bag was the entire time, and I was able to show the helpful agent this level of detail which quickly resulted in being reunited with my ski bag. The AirTag certainly saved my ski vacation.

Related: How to avoid checked baggage fees on major domestic airlines

Are AirTags the future of baggage tracking?

I was skeptical of AirTags before this ski trip, especially about how well they would work overseas, where iPhones are less prevalent compared to the United States. However, after this trip, I now recommended them to my friends and family if they are ever checking a bag. Buy one — or a pack of four — and toss them into your bags. (Having a key chain for the AirTag or another AirTag holder isn’t actually necessary.)

But now, as we quickly approach Memorial Day (which marks the unofficial start of the “sold-out summer“), I recommend having AirTags in your carry-on bags too. You never know if you will need to gate-check your bag or if you’ll otherwise be separated from your bag (or if someone might accidentally grab the wrong bag from the overhead bin — which does happen occasionally).

 

I have been impressed by how well AirTags work for both checked and carry-on bags, providing real-time tracking that complements airline systems at a reasonable price point. And if your bag is ever delayed, you now have an additional source of information regarding your bag’s precise location. A friend of mine using an AirTag recently knew when his bag was out for delivery after it was delayed due to inclement weather.

Of course, all of this comes down to your AirTag interacting with an iPhone. But with over a billion iPhones in use today — including many company-issued iPhones used by airline employees — it is safe to say your AirTag will come across multiple iPhones during its journey. (I do wonder about the effect on the batteries of airline employees’ iPhones if AirTags become more prevalent in bags.)

Bottom line

If you have an iPhone and are flying soon, consider picking up some AirTags to give yourself some extra peace of mind thanks to knowing where your bags are at all times. AirTags have been a worthwhile investment that I highly recommend.

Featured photo by RJ Sangosti/MediaNews Group/The Denver Post via Getty Images.

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