It’s a common travel story: I deboard my flight and make my way with all the other bleary-eyed passengers to the empty luggage carousel in the ghost town that is an airport at 1 a.m. We all stand there, waiting for the flashing light and the humming of the belt motors to signal our belongings are on their way. Black bag after black bag shoots down to the ramp to the round-about, interspersed here and there with the occasional cardboard box or candy-colored suitcase. Finally, I spot my ubiquitous black bag with its not-so-ubiquitous, obnoxious, hot neon pink luggage tag. Another lady approaches my bag, attempting to pick it up, but I wave her off, saying, “Sorry honey – that’s definitely my tag.”
The humble bag tag has come a long way from the steamships where it originated. Two types of tags were often affixed to passengers’ trunks: one for advertising the shipping line, and one meant to mark the trunk’s destination – practical, yet pretty. The latter held information stating the passenger’s name, destination, room, and other voyage details.
In the early days of airline travel, passengers rarely had need for such specificity. Often, a passenger’s chauffeur would merely drive the passenger to the aircraft and stewards would load the bags directly from the vehicle to the aircraft. Must have been nice. But as travel expanded and led more toward the skies and away from the railways and ports, the need for a more advanced and easily identifiable tag system was needed. After all, luggage must be impervious to all manner of weather, rough handling, crowding and wear – so too, must its identification. In the 1990s, the International Air Transport Association created a complex mixture of silicon, plastic, adhesive and paper, and these are what today’s travel bag tags look like. Anyone who’s tried to rip or tear one off by hand can attest that those puppies are tough.
As for use and look, the tags include the three-letter airport codes left over from such bygone days of romantic travel; ORD is for Chicago O’Hare, when the airport was originally named Ord’s Field after a WWII pilot and hero; IDL is for Idlewild, the previous name for New York’s JFK Airport.
In the future, many speculate bag tags will be electronic. Certain airports in Japan and Australia have already issued such advanced luggage tags, called RFID tags, using microchips, but until the rest of the world catches up, we’ll have to make do with our choice of personal ID and the impossible-to-tear tags provided us.