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October 5, 2012

Slate: The airline baggage tag is a masterpiece of design

(Continued)

The modern tag is known as an automated baggage tag, and was first tried by many airlines in the early 1990s. Perhaps the earliest airline to implement ABTs system-wide was United, in 1992, according to Jon Barrere, a spokesperson for Print-O-Tape, a tag manufacturer and United's partner on the project. Let's examine in detail the myriad improvements offered by the ABT, which symbolize as perfectly as anything air travel's transition from a rare luxury for the ultra-rich to safe, effective transport for a shrinking planet.

Let's look first at how an ABT is made. In the interconnected, automated, all-weather world of modern aviation, tags must be resistant to cold, heat, sunlight, ice, oil, and especially moisture. Tags also can't tear — and crucially, if they're nicked, they must not tear further — as the bag lurches through mechanized airport baggage systems. And the tag must be flexible, inexpensive and disposable. Plain old paper can't begin to meet all these requirements. The winning combination is what IATA's spokesperson described as a "complex composite" of silicon and plastic; the only paper in it is in the adhesive backing.

Bag tags must meet another set of contradictory requirements. They must be easy to attach, but impossible to detach — until, that is, the bag arrives safely at its destination and the traveler wants to detach it. Old tags were fastened with a string through a hole, but mechanized baggage systems eat these for breakfast. The current loop tag, a standardized strip of pressure-sensitive adhesive, looped through a handle and pressed to form an adhesive-to-adhesive bond, debuted with the ABT in the early '90s. And the ABT, unlike string tags and earlier loop-y tag ideas, is easily attached to items that lack handles — boxes, say. Simply remove the entire adhesive backing and the loop tag becomes a very sticky sticker.

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