Airlines vow: better bag tracking + fewer barriers for passengers with disabilities

My feature this week for CNBC details two good-for-travelers resolutions voted in recently during the Annual General Assembly of the International Air Transport Association.

One deals with a way to better track baggage. The other promises that the global airline industry will ease barriers for passengers who have disabilities.

Here’s a slightly different version of the posted story:

Airlines spend lots of time, energy and money competing against each other for your travel dollar and loyalty, even though high fares and excessive fees often make it seem like they’re in cahoots to make sure your journey is a frustrating, expensive nightmare.

But sometimes the industry works together to takes global action in your favor.

At the recent Annual General Meeting of the International Air Transport Association (IATA), the industry trade group passed a handful of resolutions aimed at making the passenger experience better for everyone.

Two of the resolutions that might make a noticeable difference on your next flight, and on flights into the future, address bag tracking and accessibility for people with disabilities.

Better baggage tracking. Fewer lost bags.

Most frequent travelers can share a story or two about a checked bag that got mangled, arrived days late or went missing.

But while passenger numbers soared 64% between 2007 and 2017, information technology company SITA found that the bag mishandling rate per thousand of passengers fell by 70.5%.

In 2018, 4.36 billion travelers checked in more than 4.27 billion bags.

“More bags makes things more challenging,” notes Peter Drummond, SITA’s Director of Baggage, and while “Everyone across the industry needs to look beyond the process and technology improvements made in the past decade and adopt the latest technology such as tracking to make the next big cut in the rate of mishandled bags.”

Right now, most airlines use bar code technology to track bags through their journey. But some airlines, such as Delta, have switched to RFID (radio frequency identification) tracking, a form of wireless communication used to track objects with an embedded RFID chip.

IATA considers RFID tracking to be a more cost-efficient method to achieve the industry’s target of 100% bag tracking. And at its Annual General Meeting (AGM) adopted a resolution supporting the global deployment of Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) for baggage tracking.

“Passengers want to arrive with their bags. And on the rare occasion when that does not happen, they want to know exactly where their bag is,” said Alexandre de Juniac, IATA’s Director General and CEO, “Deploying RFID and adopting modern baggage messaging standards will help us to cut mishandlings by a quarter and recover bags that are mishandled more quickly.”

While fewer lost bags will make airline customer happy, the push for RFID tracking move isn’t entirely altruistic.

While the industry has already seen a 46.2% cut in the annual cost of baggage mishandling due to better tracking, IATA estimates industry-wide adoption of RFID bag tracking will see a return on investment of over $3 billion to the industry.

Smoother travel for passengers with disabilities

1 billion people – 15% of the world’s population – live with some form of disability.

The World Health Organization (WHO) says this number is increasing due to aging populations, the spread of chronic diseases, better measurement tools and refinements in the definition of what constitutes a disability.

Of course, people with disabilities are also travelers. An Open Doors Organization (ODO) market study from 2015 found that adults with disabilities spend $17.3 billion annually on their own travel.

ODO notes that since these individuals typically travel with one or two other adults, the economic impact is at least doubled, to $34.6 billion.

But air travel poses a myriad of challenges for people with disabilities.

For example, between December 4 and December 31, 2018 (the first month the Department of Transportation required airlines to track this category) major U.S. carriers mishandled more than 700 wheelchairs and scooters, more than 2% of the 32,229 mobility devices loaded on airplanes.

“That’s 25 people a day who may have been stranded, unable to work or participate in a family activity,” explains Chris Wood of Flying Disabled.

Noting that improving the air travel experience for people with disabilities is not only “the right thing to do,” but good for business, IATA also passed a resolution committing airlines worldwide to ensuring that passengers with disabilities have access to safe, reliable and dignified travel.

The industry trade group said its aim is to change the focus “from disability to accessibility and inclusion” by bringing the travel sector together with governments to “harmonize regulations and provide the clarity and global consistency that passengers expect.” 

The resolution has the ability to enhance the passenger experience not only for people who currently have disabilities, but also for those in years to come, said Eric Lipp, Founder and Executive Director of Open Doors Organization.

“Most importantly,” said Lipp, “This is the first time IATA has recognized this on an international level. And this is in good timing with the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. Globally the time is right.”

Global airline execs on flight shaming, 737 Max return and more

Courtesy Korean Air

Your next flight – and flights you take in the future – will benefit from discussions and decisions made by top brass from the global air transport industry in Seoul, South Korea last weekend.

More than a thousand airline CEOs and industry leaders were on hand for the annual meeting of the International Air Transport Association (IATA). On the agenda was everything from climate change and “flight shaming” to the future of the beleaguered 737 MAX, congested skies, baggage tracking and a myriad of ways to improve the flying experience.

Also on the list: A downgrade for the industry trade group’s 2019 profit expectations.

“Although 2019 is expected to be the 10th consecutive year of airline profits,” Alexandre de Juniac, IATA’s Director General and CEO told the group, “Rising costs, trade wars and other uncertainties are likely to have an impact on the bottom line. The prolonged grounding of the 737 MAX aircraft is taking its toll. And aviation, like all industries, is under intensified scrutiny for its impact on climate change.”

In December 2018, IATA forecast a profit of $35.5 billion for the global air transport industry in 2019. The revised outlook  downgrades that forecast to $28 billion.

“Airlines will still turn a profit this year, but there is no easy money to be made,” said de Juniac.

Restoring public trust when Boeing’s 737 MAX back returns to the skies

In his air transport industry report, IATA’s de Juniac said the two recent Boeing 737 MAX crashes and the grounding of the aircraft have damaged the aviation industry’s reputation,

“Trust in the certification system has been damaged – among regulators, between regulators and the industry and with the flying public,” said de Juniac, who called for improved coordination in the industry.

“To be clear, I am not advocating for knee-jerk reactions. But governments and industry must find a way to maintain public confidence in safety with fast and coordinated responses,” he added.  

Estimates for when the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) will give the 737 MAX the green light to fly again range from this summer to the end of the year. But even airline CEOs that don’t have 737 MAX planes in their fleets worry about what may happen if one country’s regulatory agency lifts the ban before others decide to do so.

“I do indeed believe this is what we are facing,” said Carsten Spohr, chairman and chief executive of the Lufthansa Group, during a panel discussion of airline executives, “Probably we will see the MAX flying domestically in the U.S. first before we see if flying somewhere else. But this is a global industry and we need global trust. [It will be] difficult to explain to our global passengers that the aircraft is safe in some part of the world and supposedly not safe somewhere else.”

To try to avoid this scenario, later this month IATA will meet with representatives from Boeing, 737 MAX customers and regulators from the FAA and other countries, said Gilberto Lopez Meyer, IATA’s senior vice-president for safety and flight operations. 

Airlines continue to combat carbon emissions

Climate change, and what airlines can and are doing to reduce and offset carbon emissions, is gaining more attention as global air travel is set to increase significantly and as the “flight shaming” anti-flying movement that started in Sweden starts to spread. 

In 2017, private and commercial aviation created about 859 million tons of CO2, or about 2% of all man-made carbon emissions, according to IATA.

To reduce emissions as air traffic increases, the industry has agreed to a wide variety of standards, mitigation measures and targets. And, at its meeting in Seoul, IATA members passed a resolution calling on governments to implement a global plan calling for carbon-neutral growth as of 2020 and a 50% reduction in the industry’s net CO2 emissions by 2050, compared to 2005 levels.

Fuel efficient airplanes, improvements in air traffic management and increased use of biofuels are among the tools helping the aviation industry reach reduced carbon emission goals and carbon offset programs are in the toolbox. But, while passengers tell IATA they support voluntary offset programs and more than 40 of the group’s member airlines offer them, IATA has found that take-up rates are low.

In fact, few hands were raised when a room full of airline executives were asked if they’d purchased carbon offsets for their own flights to the meeting in Seoul.

Airline industry’s to-do list:

Looking ahead, IATA member airlines, which represent more than 80 percent of all global air traffic, passed several other resolutions that could have a real impact on your travel experience.

One commits airlines to move forward with plans for using bar-coded baggage tags with radio-frequency identification (RFID) inlays, which can help keep checked luggage from going astray.

Another focuses airline attention on improving the air travel experience for people living with disabilities.

So long, Sydney: take-aways from IATA’s meeting of world’s airline execs

The Vivid Sydney festival – which lights up iconic buildings and structures around the city – was a great backdrop for this week’s meeting of the world’s airline executives at the World Air Transport Summit (WATS) and the annual general meeting of IATA – the International Air Transport Association.

All sorts of briefings, reports, discussions, debates and newsy announcements take place at this event each year and will generate stories that will spool out over the course of the next few weeks.

In the meantime, here are just some of the highlights from the past few days:

Courtesy IATA

In his annual report, Alexandre de Juniac, IATA’s Director General and CEO, said that airlines are expected to achieve a collective net profit of $33.8 billion. That’s an average profit per passenger of $7.76 for the airlines, he explained, “A thin 4.1% net margin” in 2018.

Read his full report that also touched on safety, security, environmental issues and other topics here.



A bundle of 20-minute on-stage interviews were offered, on topics ranging from alternative fuels, gender equality in aviation, airport privatization and the benefits and risks of travel and tourism. Follow the links for more details from those sessions and videos of the interviews.


CNN’s gregarious Richard Quest was on stage with a panel of airline CEOs, including Calin Rovinsecu of Air Canada, Tim Clark of Emirates Airlines, Rupert Hogg of Cathay Pacific Airways, Pieter Elbers of KLM and Christoper Luxon of Air New Zealand.


Among the notable moments was when the all-male panel was asked to address gender equality (or the lack of it) at the top echelons of aviation:

Other sessions addressed everything from some creative ways getting passengers to and from airports more efficiently to the role airlines play in human trafficking.

For media attendees, the meeting wrapped up with a final debriefing session with IATA CEO and Director General Alexandre de Juniac, Qatar Airways Group Chief Executive Akbar Al Baker, who will serve as chairman of the IATA Board of Governors for the next year, and Alan Joyce, CEO of the Qantas Group, which hosted the IATA AGM in Sydney.

The Qatar Airways CEO is well-known for his bravado and controversial comments, but at an event in which other CEOs expressed a committment to increasing the role of women in the upper ranks of their companies, Akbar Al Baker’s comment that of course his airline had to be run by a man, “Because it is a very challenging position” was met with disbelief.

His comment may have been a ‘joke,’ – and he did go on to mention that Qatar has women serving as pilots, as senior vice presidents and in other top-level positions – but the comment did not sit well with the group assembled (I literally jumped out of my seat!) and just underscores the fact that this sector of industry has some real homework to do.

Euro crisis worries airlines, but progress marches on

Troubles in the Eurozone have caused the organization representing 240 of the world’s airlines and 84% of global air traffic to revise its overall outlook for the airline industry.

Based on current actions being taken to try to avert a credit crunch in the Eurozone and additional measures central banks are expected to take to avert financing problems facing Italy and Spain, on Wednesday the International Air Transport Association (IATA), downgraded its central forecast for airline profits from $4.9 billion to $3.5 billion for a net margin of 0.6%.

“The biggest risk facing airline profitability over the next year is the economic turmoil that would result from a failure of governments to resolve the Eurozone sovereign debt crisis. Such an outcome could lead to losses of over $8 billion—the largest since the 2008 financial crisis,” said Tony Tyler, IATA’s Director General and CEO.

Tyler was speaking at a meeting held at IATA’s headquarters in Geneva, Switzerland, where a wide variety of ‘state of the industry’ reports and forecasts for security, safety, the environment and other aspects of the airline industry were also presented.

Now that so much of the check-in process is done electronically via kiosks, the web and mobile boarding passes, Paul Behan, IATA’s Head of Passenger Experience predicted that the ‘boarding pass’ will soon replaced by a ‘boarding token’ and said that “baggage processing, is still one of the greatest challenges in terms of simplification.”

Behan described several trials currently underway that allow travelers to print their baggage tags at home and another in which Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) has been embedded right into a suitcase. “This trial simply showed that you can embed an RFID baggage tag, program it at a baggage drop and then use the tag for sortation,” said Behan, but he said the next step is to use the system to make “interaction-free and tag-free baggage drop a possibility.”

Behan also noted that while many airlines already offer the ability to register a lost bag claim online, IATA is working with airlines to move the baggage tracking systems from interactive to proactive.

For example, he said that instead of having a passenger wait to see if their bag shows up at the baggage claim, “The passenger might get a proactive text or phone message from the airline saying they already know there’s a problem with a bag and that the process of locating their bag has begun.”

In the area of security, Ken Dunlap, IATA’s Global Director Security and Travel Facilitation, outlined ways in which airlines are working with airports and governments on a “checkpoint of the future” designed to change the passenger experience and enhance security. He said that while far more high-tech than today’s checkpoints, as designed, the checkpoint of the future only uses personal data about passengers that has already been gathered by other organizations. “That data is now used at the end of the journey [i.e. at customs and immigration]. We want to use it at the beginning of the journey as well to increase security.”


Improving the odds of having your baggage arrive when you do.

My Well Mannered Traveler column – Mishandled baggage: Mission Accomplished? – on MSNBC.com this week is all about the odds of having your checked baggage arrive at your destination airport when you do – and the airlines’ efforts to improve those odds.

The good news is that those odds have been improving.  According to statistics released recently by the Department of Transportation (DOT), in 2009 the major U.S. carriers reduced the rate of mishandled, mangled and lost bags to the lowest level recorded since 2004.

Hooray, right? Well, just maybe.  In 2009 major airlines mishandled “just” 3.91 bags per 1,000 passengers.  That’s an improvement over 2008’s rate of 5.26 but, still, more than 2.19 million pieces of luggage went astray in 2009.

What’s behind the numbers?

The numbers are better, so we might conclude that airlines aren’t just pocketing our checked bags fees but using that money to improve  baggage handling systems.

Some actually did. But last year’s improved statistics have more to do with depressed travel patterns than with airline attentiveness.  In 2009, there were fewer passengers, fewer flights and, therefore, fewer checked bags to be mishandled.

Will it last?

The improved baggage handling numbers will only last, says Catherine Mayer, a vice President at SITA, a company specializing in information technology (IT) for the air transport industry, if airports, airlines, and ground handlers “use this slow travel period to invest in fixing the baggage management system.”

One tool being used by airlines, airports and ground handlers is the baggage improvement program, or BIP. Created by IATA, the International Air Transport Association, the program’s goal is to halve the global rate of baggage mishandling by 2012.  Not just to make passengers happy, say IATA spokesman Steve Lott, but to help airlines fix their bottom lines: “Globally, mishandled baggage cost airlines $3.3 billion in 2008. So the airline industry has a financial incentive to make sure they close the gap.”

The fixes include some costly, sophisticated technology but also some cheap common sense ones, such as painting spacing lines on the belt behind the check-in counter so bags don’t begin their journey all bunched up.

There are also some things you can do to help increase the odds of your bags arriving safely. In addition to putting your contact information and travel itinerary inside your baggage, inspect the outside of your bags before each trip. If there are old tag stubs and bar code labels stuck on your luggage from a previous journey, remove them.  That way you won’t run the risk of confusing the automatic barcode readers in the baggage handling system and having your bags end up in a city you visited back  1999.