The Genius of Airline Baggage Tag Design

Slate has a great read on the design of airline baggage tags. My favorite part is the description of what the design needs to be able to deal with:

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.

If you really think about it, it’s a pretty daunting set of requirements. The design they went with is not only quite simplistic and easy to print out it’s also quite effective.

While you can reduce it to a mundane sticker it’s a pretty impressive feat of engineering from the selection of a glue that can meet these requirements to a composite “paper”.

Confession: I’m A Touchscreen Snob

Continental Touchscreen

I’m a touchscreen snob, and I bet you are too. I bet every human being is. We get upset when things don’t react as expected and we get frustrated when things aren’t instant. Statistically this page loads on average under 2 seconds and it’s likely still too long for you. It’s not just touch screens. For example, 100 ms increase in load time of decreased sales by 1%. We’re an impatient species.

I took the above photo on a 757-200 equipped with touch screens on the back of every seat. I remember the days with only a handful of TV’s, or that big projector thing up front on planes, so I appreciate that a choice of entertainment is an upgrade. Lets take a look at it’s sins as it makes a great example:

Resistive Touchscreen

I’m virtually certain based on it’s poor performance it’s a resistive touchscreen. Unresponsive, and it requires a lot of pressure which the person in the seat in front of you enjoys for 8 hours. Resistive touchscreens are much more cost effective, though I wonder that difference is splitting hairs on a $65-80 million aircraft given there are only ~200 seats and the displays are relatively small.

There was a time when nobody would notice, but even a Droid v1’s touch screen is more responsive, and that phone is extensively laggy.

Poor Contrast

Part of this is likely because of the substrate used for resistive touchscreens, but the poor contrast is obviously an issue. Color reproduction is bad, but that’s not a deal killer, it’s a nitpick. Contrast is critical especially on a vehicle where lighting varies from dark to virtually unfiltered sunlight glaring on the display. Contrast controls are minimally helpful here.


I suspect these are units are just terminals, so the performance can sometimes lag. It’s forgivable and likely will not be an issue in future generations. Thanks to the mobile revolution low powered ARM chips can be found everywhere. The need for these things to be dumb to save space and power is drawing to a close.


I’ve yet to figure out why airlines can’t manage to get rid of the noise in the lines. Sure when you use the $0.25 headsets they hand out you can’t tell the difference. But when you use your own higher quality headset you sure can. Given a cheap mp3 player can manage it, I wonder why this is so difficult. Weight?

My second gripe about sound is the volume differences. The movie is set to a comfortable level. If the crew takes over to show a video of your destination or a safety video, it’s uncomfortably loud. If the captain speaks, it’s painful. This is more than a nuisance, this is actually a safety issue.

The Recirculated Air Myth

Airplanes don’t recirculate air any more than most environments you spend time in. Despite this, people frequently claim various versions of this urban legend. Some say the air when they close the door stays in the cabin until they open it on landing. Others say it’s actually coming from air canisters stored on the aircraft. It is not true.

The air is really a 50/50 blend of recirculated air and new air bled through the engine air compressors (before combustion). The NY Times has a nice little writeup on cabin air:

Cabin air, he said, is refreshed about 15 times an hour, compared with less than 12 an hour in an office building. On most full-size jets, the air is also circulated through hospital-grade HEPA filters, which are supposed to remove 99.97 percent of bacteria and the minuscule particles that carry viruses. The cabin air is also divided into separate ventilation systems covering every seven rows or so, limiting the ability of germs to travel from one end of the plane to the other.

The reason most people feel the air quality is so low is because the humidity is about 10% to prevent corrosion of the aircraft, which is almost always metal. Newer aircraft are now being made using composites allowing for more natural humidity. The other factor is pressurizing to approx. 8,000 ft, which is higher than you’re used to.

Those HEPA filters employed are also more than adequate to filter air leaving it cleaner than most homes [pdf].

Presumably the confusion is aided by the emergency oxygen system on board modern airliners.

So next time someone claims that the air is literally unchanged through a 9 hour flight, you should call their bluff and ask for documentation. This has been a pet peeve of mine.

Top 10 Airports

Here’s an article on the Top 10 Airports in the World. They are billed as great places to pass time while waiting. And boy is this article a load of manure.

I’ve flown out of John F. Kennedy International Airport (though not the mentioned Terminal 6), connected at Los Angeles International Airport (with a layover), and spend 12 hrs delayed at Amsterdam Schiphol Airport.

First of all, their description of Schiphol is borderline fraudulent. Believe me, all airports are boring after about 1hr. Everything they mention is a bit smaller than the description implies. To give you an idea, take the size of the country and compare the scale to that of the United States. Got that ratio handy? Then take a small Atlantic City Casino, Museum, etc. from the US and shrink it down by that same ratio. That’s about accurate.

I never saw any celebrities at LAX, but perhaps that’s because I was there before the sun came up on a layover, and that was in July as I recall. Any celebrity with money, and some without were somewhere else but LA.

Hacking The TSA

Everyone’s favorite security guru has a great blog post on how to prevent loss of an expensive camera that must be checked luggage rather than carry on. To summarize, you can pack it with a starter pistol so that the TSA takes extra precautions to prevent it’s loss (they don’t want to loose a gun, but don’t mind losing your expensive possessions).

This is really quite brilliant. Here’s some info on requirements. According to this you could also just carry a replica, or even bullet, or a piece of a gun.

That’s got to be the most clever solution to the problem. Finally we can all carry our laptops and expensive equipment around without fear of loss. You know the TSA won’t loose a gun, since that would spark a major controversy.

I must admit this solution is beyond clever, it’s outright brilliant.