A Brief, Elegant History of the Airline Baggage Tag

16 destination baggage tags, issued by National Airlines around 1978, for various U.S. and European cities

Today, our luggage is tagged at airports with stark white paper stickers covered with unseemly machine-read bar codes, but this wasn’t always the case. Many of the people reading this article (including myself) weren’t even alive to have our luggage adorned with the colorful, collectible airline tags that airlines used for over fifty years. Nostalgic for the good old days of luggage tags that were worth collecting, Mark Vanhoenacker recently wrote a history of the luggage tag in Slate that I quote from here. According to Vanhoenacker, Americans boarded 53 million flights in July alone, and that less than one third of one percent of customers reported a lost or mishandled bag. The demise of the lost bag is due almost entirely to electronic tagging, which makes it easy for transportation workers to determine whether the bags in each cargo bay match up with the passengers seated above in the same plane. Going back over a hundred years, however,

In the old days—we’re talking steamships—there were two kinds of tags for luggage. Best known are the labels affixed to trunks. Often these were pure advertising for the shipping line, with no room for personal information—for some beautiful examples click here and here. The other kind of tag—a destination tag—was more practical, though still aesthetically pleasing. One side often bore the line’s logo, as in this classic Cunard White Star tag. The reverse held information such as the passenger’s name, destination, stateroom and whether the bag was “Wanted in Stateroom” or “Not Wanted on Voyage.”

Early on, airlines offered labels that mimicked maritime-style advertising stickers, with lovely results. But initially, airlines had no need for destination tags: As the International Air Transport Association explained to me, “a passenger’s chauffeur would drive the passenger to the aircraft side, and stewards would load the passenger’s bags directly from the car to the aircraft.” Nice. [1]

However, as people began to take more flights, it became helpful to have transferable tags like those people had used on railways so that their bags would follow them when they boarded a connecting train. This began with colorful paper tags like those in the image above, which allowed handlers to quickly identify a bag’s destination by the color of its tag. But bags in this system were difficult to keep track of and left the airline industry with a reputation for constantly losing luggage. All that changed with the advent of the modern baggage tag:

The modern tag is known as an automated baggage tag, and was first tried by many airlines in the early 1990s. Perhaps the earliest airline to implement ABTs system-wide was United, in 1992, according to Jon Barrere, a spokesperson for Print-O-Tape, a tag manufacturer and United’s partner on the project. Let’s examine in detail the myriad improvements offered by the ABT, which symbolize as perfectly as anything air travel’s transition from a rare luxury for the ultra-rich to safe, effective transport for a shrinking planet.

Let’s look first at how an ABT is made. In the interconnected, automated, all-weather world of modern aviation, tags must be resistant to cold, heat, sunlight, ice, oil, and especially moisture. Tags also can’t tear—and crucially, if they’re nicked, they must not tear further—as the bag lurches through mechanized airport baggage systems. And the tag must be flexible, inexpensive, and disposable. Plain old paper can’t begin to meet all these requirements. The winning combination is what IATA’s spokesperson described as a “complex composite” of silicon and plastic; the only paper in it is in the adhesive backing…

The simple genius of the looped tag alone explains why so few bags get lost.

The next stage in the future of luggage tags? RFID tagging, which uses machine-read chips and is virtually 100% automated, unlike electronic tagging today, in which tags must still be manually scanned. A similar solution—the permanent bag tag—stores your passenger information on a chip that never requires new programming to stay with its owner. Australia introduced this system in 2010, though it hasn’t caught on in other parts of the world, where black and white looped tags are likely to stay around for a while. The biggest advantage to RFID chip tagging? “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.”

Slate’s gallery of vintage airline tags is reproduced below.

Tag for Curtiss Flying Service from around 1929

Baggage label issued by Braniff Airways for a flight from Oklahoma City to Washington, D.C., on Sept. 19, 1936

A Pan American Airways baggage label from around 1937

Baggage label issued by Eastern Air Lines as a carry-on baggage permit on June 13, 1960

Baggage tag issued in April 1961 by Pan American World Airways for final destination Oslo, Norway

Western Airlines bag tag issued in August, 1972, for a flight from Seattle to Copenhagen, Denmark

Reeve Aleutian Airways 1972 bag tag

Royal Air Maroc bag tag with destination Rome from 1977

Eleven destination baggage labels issued by National Airlines for various U.S. cities, around 1978

A Pan Am tag from the 1950s and a modern tag

Text and images via:

[1] “The Beauty of the Airline Baggage Tag,” Mark Vanhoenacker, Slate

  • United787

    I would love to see a photo of the cart they would have at curbside with the cubby system of tags – one for each tag!

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