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US Airways Now Scanning Bags at Planeside, Improving Bag Tracking

It seems like a simple request. All we want as customers is for an airline to take as much responsibility for our bags as FedEx would. We want to see our bags scanned everywhere so we can see where they are, and if they do get lost, we want to know when we will see them again. Like I said, simple . . . . Right.

I had the chance to sit down with US Airways’ Managing Director of Customer Strategy Tim Lindeman and Director of Customer Strategy, Melody Anderson (yes, the customer strategy group needs a lot of “directing”) to talk about what US Airways is doing in the world of baggage. You might be surprised to know that it’s pretty cool.

When you check your bag, the tag is scanned into the system and the bag is on its way. As of last November, your bag will now be scanned every time it gets on and off an airplane. So far, this is only implemented at domestic stations handled by mainline, but international stations should have scanners soon. Express stations don’t have them planeside yet but they have them in the baggage offices.

What happens if your bag doesn’t follow you onboard? They’re currently working on notification capability. If your bag doesn’t make it on your flight, they will eventually be able to send you a text message letting you now. That way you’d skip the annoying part of waiting at the carousel for an hour before proceeding to the baggage service office (BSO). I suggested that they offer a notification that your bag IS on the plane as well – just for piece of mind – and they like that idea as well (maybe for a fee).

Once your lost bag arrives in a BSO, it’s scanned so that they know where it is. When you get to the BSO, it may already be there waiting for you if it made it on an earlier flight. They’ll scan your bag claim tag and immediately be able to let you know where it is (or where it was last seen).

I think we all know that reuniting with a lost bag isn’t always that easy. If a bag is left somewhere at the end of the day, the agents will open it up and choose a couple of unique items to enter into the claim. Now, with their new NetTracer system, someone will be able to search for those unique items and find their bag that way instead of saying “black rollerbag” like every other customer.

What is this NetTracer system? In December, US Airways switched over from the old legacy WorldTracer system to the new, web-based NetTracer system for bag tracking purposes. The system actually came from the king of lost bags, The Owens Group. You may not know them, but they’re the ones that have the famed Unclaimed Baggage Center in Scottsboro, Alabama, the last place bags go after airlines have given up finding the owner.

US Airways NetTracer Baggage System

Apparently they decided to kill their own business by helping airlines stop losing so many bags. So far, airlines including AirTran and Spirit have adopted the system, but I believe US Airways is the first legacy carrier to do so. What’s so special about it? Search.

The old system required looking through categories to try to match bags, but now you can simply search for your bag like you’d search on Google. You can type in info about your bag or info about the contents and that means there’s a better chance of finding your bag. It’s also a lot easier to teach to new agents since it’s web-based, and it’s more accurate since all the scanners automatically work with the system. Not more typing in wrong numbers.

My first question was . . . doesn’t scanning each bag manually take a lot of time? The answer is surprisingly no. They said that during all their tests, it didn’t appreciably increase the amount of time required to handle bags. There are also a lot of benefits from this system that speed things up. For example, those loading the bags will eventually be able to automatically have weight and balance calculated and sent to the aircraft so they don’t have to run up and down stairs. Recently (assuming the planned release happened in April), they added some even more helpful improvements.

On widebody aircraft, bags aren’t just thrown in the holds down below but rather put in containers first and those containers are loaded on the airplane. If someone doesn’t get on the plane and the airline has to pull that person’s bag, it can be very time-consuming. Now, the bags and containers will all be scanned, so when someone’s bag needs to be pulled off, it can easily be located instantly.

US Airways will also get a real-time baggage matrix that will show how many bags still need to be loaded on airplanes waiting to depart and from which flights they’re coming. That way they can easily pay attention to those airplanes that have a lot of bags on tight connections to help get them on the plane before it departs.

Apparently United and Northwest do scan their bags as well, and others, like Continental are working on it. I’m not, however, sure how far their plans will take them. In the end, this is a great thing for customers. Bags will be more easily tracked, and when they’re separated from the customer, it will be easier to give accurate estimates of when the bags will arrive. There should be no more “well, it’s probably on the next flight” types of conversations.

Ultimately, they admitted that with these new systems, there’s a lot that they can do. So this is just the start, and it should result in good news for customers.

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