Part 5: Bags and Tags


Acolyte of the Probe
Apr 11, 2011
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Before I begin, I want to say that this may be the last one for a while, as I have a couple of real-life situations that are going to come to a nexus here in the next month or so, and I'm going to be going through some pretty dramatic changes in my life. I'll continue to post continuations of the series as I find time.

Beneath The Wing, Part 5: Bags and Tags.

Next time you fly with an airline, don't just cut off that little strip of paper and plastic that got looped around the handle: Look at it closely. This little tag is what made sure that your luggage arrived at the same destinatin as you, and on the same plane. So, how does it do that?


There are several key components to a typical bag tag: The station code of the destinatnion, the flight number, info on the different flights that the passenger and luggage need to take to reach their destination, and the passenger's name. There's also a barcode for keeping track of where the bag goes, and sometimes an RFID unit is also incorporated for automated baggage sorting.

So, how can you read all this information yourself? Simple. Start at the bottom of the tag, andwork your way up. The first flight is ALWAYS the bottom one. So, I'll use an example that I saw at my time at SMF.


Keep in mind that the flight numbers other than the first one are not true flight numbers: I didn't need to keep track of those! :lol: However, DL2181 IS the first turnaround flight of the day that heads to Minneapolis/St. Paul, Minnesota. (There is a Remain OverNight flight that heads out around 0700 local.)
So, here's how to read this:
First flight: Delta flight 2181 to Minneapolis/St. Paul
Second flight: Delta flight 5243 to John F. Kennedy (New York City)
Third (and final) flight: Delta flight 1234 to Charles DeGaulle, Paris, France.

Typically, the final station code is done in larger letters at the top center of the tag.

Now, why isn't SMF, the originating station, on the tag? Simple: It's only going ONTO the plane there, not coming off and then getting back on.

Okay, now you can read the basic parts of the tag. What about those gibberish three-letter station codes? Some of them are logical:
MSP= Minneapolis/St. Paul
CDG= Charles DeGaulle
SLC= Salt Lake City
JFK= John F. Kennedy
ATL= ATLanta
MEX= MEXico City
HEA= HEAthrow

Others are still composed of parts of the name, but don't make as much sense:
SFO= San FranciscO
LGA= LaGuardiA
STL= SainT Louis

Some of them don't make any sense at all, as they have letters that aren't part of the city name at all:
SMF= Sacramento Metropolitan Field (Old name for Sacramento International Airport)
LAX= Los Angeles
IAD= Washington, DC area (International Airport, Dulles)
MCO= Orlando, Florida (Municipal, County, Orlando :shrug:)

So, if all this info is readable by humans, what use are barcodes?

This allows a precise tracking record showing where the bags are loaded, what flight they're on, and helps keep track of timing for on and off loading, bag dropoff times, and even who was loading the bags.

Future developments that were being considered included an RFID reader embedded in the doorframe of the baggage holds, and RFID tags in the tags. These would carry info about the mass of the bag inaddition to all the other information already carried by the tags, allowing far more precise load distribution measurements for trim settings.

Next time on Beneath the Wing: Walk the Line.


O-F Administrator
Addon Developer
Tutorial Publisher
May 14, 2008
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I knew most of this from a fascinating documentary that was about Heathrow Terminal 5 and showed the underground baggage system along with some of the testing to spot dangerous goods. Fascinating stuff.