When Rick Warther’s wife, Francie, had her luggage lost by her airline on the way to Florida 10 years ago, the longtime graphic technology entrepreneur wondered why luggage mishaps had become so common.
The chief executive of Vanguard ID Systems, a West Chester-based bar-code manufacturer, asked himself, “How are we still not able to track our bags?”
Warther’s answer? ViewTag, a reusable electronic tag that attaches to luggage and displays a changeable bar code that allows people to minimize airport check-in time and track their bags during travel.
“Ten years ago, I decided to take on the most difficult logistic problem on the planet: tracking luggage,” said Warther, a Dover, Ohio, native who moved to West Chester in 1987 to found Vanguard ID Systems.
Now, ViewTag, a two-man show based in West Chester, this week announced its first partnership with a major airline. The five-year agreement with British Airways gives the airline exclusive dibs on the product for 90 days and requires British Air to market the tags to customers.
“We have been testing all over the world,” said Warther, who said he has invested $3.5 million in ViewTag so far. “The first 90 days is exclusive to British Airways and after that we will be shipping products all over the world.” In the first three months, or the introductory period, the device will cost £63, or about $80. Starting in October, it will go up to £80 ($102). The tags, which are made in China, went on sale June 24, so Warther said the company does not have any sales numbers to share yet.
About 24.8 million checked bags are lost every year, costing the airline industry $2.4 billion a year, according to the 2018 SITA baggage report. The 4.3-by-4.8-inch plastic device looks to replace the paper tag that has been traditionally stuck onto luggage and promises to give passengers and airlines a clearer understanding of where bags are located during travel.
The ViewTag went through about 13 iterations before it was ready, said Warther. “This has not been a sprint, it’s been a marathon.”
The tag works like this: When it’s time for travelers to check in for a flight, they open their airline app (in this instance British Airways') on their smart phone. After they check in, the app will ask if they want to check a bag. If so, they select the option and then turn on their ViewTag. The tag will then connect with the app via Bluetooth and sync the traveler’s information to the tag. Then, the digital bar code, with the same information as the traditional paper-based luggage tags, lights up on the screen.
Warther said that this will save travelers time at the check-in kiosk and enable them to track their bag by using their smart phone.
The tag is equipped with radio frequency identification (RFID), which works similar to a car’s E-ZPass. RFID readers pick up the presence of the RFID in the tag and then place a time, date, and location stamp on the bag, which is visible through the app. However, this particular feature is not yet available because very few airlines have RFID systems.
British Airways does not have such a system. “You can’t flip the switch and expect the system to change to better technology right away,” Warther said.
He said that Delta Air Lines is one of the only airlines using RFID at the moment, but that by 2020, it will become the preferred luggage tracking system. Warther could not confirm whether ViewTag has plans in the works with Delta, but said that “they’re a natural airline to go to next.”
“All of our everyday objects have the potential to use RFID,” said Kapil Dandekar, director of the Drexel Wireless Systems Lab, which studies wireless communications including RFID.
“RFID is definitely on the rise, and it’s growing fast,” he said. It’s increasingly being used in retail and is largely used in industrial and package delivery. But, he said that anything wireless has the potential for problems and for someone to intercept it to gain information. “It can be used by people you want, or people you don’t want.”
Warther said that the tag must be turned on by the manual press of a button for it to be connected on Bluetooth, which makes it harder to hack. He said that the RFID readers in an airport are behind the security system’s “secure wall,” making the readers just as difficult to intercept as other technology inside an airport.
The International Air Transport Association (IATA), a trade group for 290 airlines that oversees 82 percent of total air traffic, announced unanimous support for RFID in luggage tracking in a June 2 release. The release said that “RFID and modern messaging standards should reduce the mishandling rate by 25%.”
If the ViewTag were to malfunction or the battery dies, Warther said, the screen maintains its display whether it is on or not. When a graphic is displayed on the tag’s screen, it is depicted by particles and does not require power to stay visible. It only requires power to change the display.
If a person’s phone or Bluetooth is not working, the bar code can be manually uploaded by connecting the tag with a USB cable to a personal computer or the system at the airport ticketing counter.
The tag’s small battery is meant to last for up to 3,200 trips, but this varies based on the temperature at which it’s stored. The tag can be removed and multiple people can register to use it.