Electronic bag tags are ready for takeoff

February 16, 2023

Walking into Sea-Tac Airport for a Friday afternoon flight, GeekWire Co-founder Todd Bishop glanced smugly at the people huddled around the Alaska Airlines self-serve kiosks to print bag tags. “I wouldn’t be wasting my time in that crowd, not on this day,” he said.

“OK, sure, I still had to wait in line to drop off my bag,” Bishop noted, “But my bag tag was attached to my luggage and ready before I arrived at the airport. In fact, it had been on my bag for several weeks, for multiple flights to different destinations.”

That is because Todd was testing an electronic bag tag offered to him by the airline. The 3-inch by 5-inch device, made by the Dutch company, BAGTAG, is powered by near-field communication (NFC) from a smartphone—just long enough for a Bluetooth Low Energy connection to update the E-Ink display (the same technology used in Kindles and other e-readers) when checking in for a flight on the airline’s app.

After that, the electronic tag stays on the screen until it’s updated for your next flight.

Alaska Airlines is the first U.S. air carrier to introduce an electronic bag tag, along with some European and Asian carriers. Alaska Airlines has provided the device to about 2,500 elite Mileage Plan members, and says it plans to make the electronic bag tag available for purchase by all mileage plan members sometime in the first half of this year.

The airline hasn’t said how much it will charge for the electronic bag tag when it rolls out more broadly, but the industry norm is a $60-to-$70 one-time charge.

Below, are the key takeaways that Bishop says he, personally, got from his experience:

  • The convenience is great, and the technology is cool. I’ve been using one on loan from Alaska for review, and I’m not looking forward to giving it back. I plan to buy one on my own when they’re available more broadly.
  • Alaska still has some minor technological quirks to work out prior to the broader rollout.
  • In the short run, a lack of availability among different airlines means it’s not a great solution for people who fly regularly on multiple carriers. Infrequent travelers probably won’t see enough value, either.
  • However, in my opinion, the electronic bag tag will be worth the investment for many frequent Alaska Airlines passengers (and for regular customers of other airlines as the technology comes to them).
  • My luggage has arrived consistently (and on time) at my destination. For now, this is primarily a testament to the fact that the E-Ink tags work reliably.

The electronic bag tags do contain an RFID transmitter that could ultimately make it easier for the airline to track and route bags, but that will require infrastructure upgrades at many U.S. airports.

In the meantime, the main selling point of the electronic bag tags is pre-flight convenience. Alaska previously offered a print-at-home bag tag option, but many travelers used inkjet printers to create those tags; which frequently made them unreadable—requiring agents to reprint them, ultimately complicating rather than simplifying matters.

Separately, later this year, Alaska Airlines plans to start letting passengers track bags through the system in its mobile app. But the airline will do this by manually scanning bar codes, and by using sortation systems. This tracking system will work with both paper tags (printed at the airport) and the new electronic bag tags.

In other words, the electronic bag tags are primarily an upgrade for the former print-at-home bag tag program, with the bonus of embedded RFID technology that could enable new tracking capabilities in the future.

Research contact: @geekwire