Can Apple’s AirTags tell if your luggage made it onto your flight?

It would certainly be reassuring if your iPhone could show your bag was on the flight...

By David Flynn, May 3 2021
Can Apple’s AirTags tell if your luggage made it onto your flight?

Frequent flyers and business travellers have an obvious interest in what Apple's new AirTags can do for them, especially when it comes to tracking their luggage.

That was the focus of our exclusive hands-on review last week, when we tried to see if AirTags could tell when your checked luggage lands on the baggage claim belt (they can't, although there are other ways they play well with checked bags).

But there's surprisingly high interest in another travel-centric application for these button-sized Bluetooth trackers: can an AirTag let you know if your bags have been loaded onto your flight?

It'd certainly provide a degree of reassurance, especially when there are tight connections involved.

Imagine settling in your business class seat or first class suite, pre-flight drink in hand, and seeing on your iPhone that your bag is snugly tucked in the cargo hold below you.

While we've not yet been able to test that scenario, here are some thoughts...

Could an AirTag track your bag on its way to the plane?

AirTags rely on the network of people using Apple's cloud-based Find My service, which in turn is built its iPhone, iPad and Mac software.

This is the same service you'd use if you have lost your iPhone, but it's now been updated to include the AirTags.

Apple's AirTags effectively crowd-source the task of finding your stuff.
Apple's AirTags effectively crowd-source the task of finding your stuff.

Any device plugged into the Find My network can automatically pick up the Bluetooth signal from a nearby AirTag and – without even knowing it – have the Air Tag's location privately relayed back to its owner.

So in theory, once your bags are ready to be sent to your plane, if the baggage truck driver and baggage loaders have iPhones, those should (again, in theory) detect the AirTag on your luggage and update its position on your own Find My app.

But if this would also depend on if your bag is inside a large metal container, or it's in the middle of a mass of bags, which in both cases could reduce the range of the AirTag's already low-power Bluetooth signal.

However, if that did work, at least you'd be able to see on the Find My map that your bag was last seen somewhere on the tarmac, which would afford some measure of confidence (assuming it was then loaded onto the correct flight).

Could an AirTag track your bag on the plane itself?

Let's assume your bag makes it onto your flight. Could the AirTag's presence be detected by the iPhones, iPads and MacBooks of other passengers, and that information passed on to you?

This is far less likely. First up, your airborne search party would need to have Bluetooth enabled on their devices, which airlines warn against during flight, and be online so that data could be sent back to Apple and shared on the Find My network.

You'd also need to have your device online to receive the live location.

There are also physical factors which would prevent the AirTag's Bluetooth signal from getting out in the first place – primarily the floor between the passenger level and the cargo hold – so for now, we'd tamp down expectations of your AirTagged luggage letting you know it's on your flight.

It would make more sense for airlines to embrace the bag-tracking technology they already have in place, and send an alert through their own app to confirm that your bags have been loaded onto your flight, as a way of providing another feel-good 'touch point' which airlines are always banging on about.

Affixing your AirTag to checked luggage

As a final note on the topic of AirTagged bags, several people have asked about the AirTag shown dangling from our luggage during the tests.

This is certainly not recommended, but we had to illustrate the AirTag 'in action'.

There's simply too much risk of an AirTag strap being caught in the complex and unforgiving machinery of the airport's baggage sorting system and conveyer belt, and becoming a ritual sacrifice to the God of Luggage.

We'd strongly urge AirTaggers to either get a very very short strap or a carabiner-style clip – to slip the AirTag inside their usual bag tag with their address and contact details – or, for maximum safety, to stow it in one of the bag's internal pockets.

During our airport tests, having the AirTag on this external strap or in an inside pocket made no discernible difference to range-finding when the bag was stationary.

But collecting your bag at the carousel, only to find your expensive AirTag has been torn off, is not going to put you in a good mood.

David

David Flynn is the Editor-in-Chief of Executive Traveller and a bit of a travel tragic with a weakness for good coffee, shopping and lychee martinis.

I've ordered 4 AirTags to test out tracking urgent part transfers between state offices, should be interesting rather than relying on a courier to let us know where the parts are we should be able to track them ourselves directly at $45.00 an AirTag it's a no brainer. 

Qantas

22 Oct 2012

Total posts 292

My understanding is that Bluetooth is permitted by most airlines whilst in the air.  

I use Tile Pro for this exact purpose. Happy to report that it works perfectly except for while in upper deck of a380 (sadly I’m not there often enough). I can connect to my Tile before I switch my phone off to make sure it’s on the flight. 

XWu
XWu

09 May 2020

Total posts 389

Sorry for the stupid question but if my baggage is not on the flight, am I able to do anything about it?

Other than harassing the flight attendants, who will not able to do anything about it (once the door is closed) and except for the pilot radioing the info and request the airlineo put it in the next flight, they hardly going to hold the airplane and messing up their schedule while the handlers look for the missing luggage?

Or will I going to raise hell with the airline customer service via internet using the plane wifi?

Sure, we can organise via internet to replace the essential (while waiting the baggage to be delivered to your actual location, presumably only a full service airline will still do that; haven’t seen LCC deliver outside the airport) but frankly I would end up getting upset over something I can’t do anything about.... and then find out it was on the flight after all (the location relies on Apple ecosystem interconnectivity of a human chain close to the airTag

24 Oct 2010

Total posts 2501

"Sorry for the stupid question but if my baggage is not on the flight, am I able to do anything about it?"

Hi Xwu: this is not in any shape a "stupid question", in fact it's actually one which a few people have posed.

First up, I don't expect any passenger who noticed their AirTagged luggage would expect the flight to be held up while their bags were loaded, in fact I doubt that showing the bag's location (eg sitting on the other side of the terminal) on the Find My map to a flight attendant would make any difference, because we all know how tech can get things wrong.

This is one reason I'm an advocate of airlines being pro-active with bag tracking and sending passengers an app-based alert to inform them that their bag has been loaded, or for the cabin crew to come to the passenger (likely after take-off) and inform them the bag wasn't loaded and here's what we are doing about it (it's being put onto the next flight to deliver to your hotel, here's how much the airline can offer for buying replacement clothing if the bags won't be there tonight, offering upgrade to business or even first class if there's space available as a short-term 'sorry!' etc).

And as to "I would end up getting upset over something I can’t do anything about" - well, that's where I would see things differently. If I was on a flight and I knew my bags hadn't made the flight, I would actually be in a much better position of control and being able to do something about it, than if I remained in blissful ignorance until arriving at my destination, waiting in vain around the baggage carousel for an hour with tension rising, then spending another frantic, even panicked half-hour dealing with the lost baggage department or the service desk.

For starters, knowing the bag missed my flight would save me that 90 minutes and all that tension and panic. While sitting on the flight I could look at my schedule for the evening (using the example of a day flight to somewhere overseas) and consider if the clothes I had were suitable: if I was going out for dinner and drinks with friends or business colleagues then I'd know that on arrival I need to head to the mall (which mall? Is there one below or near my hotel? If I know the hotel and mall, do I know they have the right shops for me?) to quickly buy some new clothes.

Likewise, if I was on the last flight and thus my bags would not reach me until the next day, and I had to go into meetings or a conference right after breakfast, I'd again be forewarned to hit the shops that night and know the sort of 'emergency clothes' to buy.

If there were other things in my bag which I needed for the night or the next day - business presentation material, handouts, samples or whatever – I'd also be able to think about how to deal with that.

Now I'd much rather be doing all that at 30,000 feet, in a comfortable business class seat with hours ahead and a calming drink at hand and ideally Internet access to help make Plan B arrangements, than to be dumped into it on arrival while staring at an empty baggage carousel. In fact, having done all I could mid-flight, I'd actually feel quite calm and in control.

(FWIW, I had a delayed bag scenario quite some years back after a flight to HKG and all of the above was exactly what I could have done during the flight, in advance of landing, had I known my bag had missed the flight.)

Qantas - Qantas Frequent Flyer

22 May 2018

Total posts 31

And if it didn't what could you do????

I have been flying domestically for over 50 years and have had checked baggage failures on two occasions (pre 2020 at least 24 flights a year). Looks like just another gadget.

24 Oct 2010

Total posts 2501

Hi Racala: 'lost' bags, although more accurately just delayed/misrouted than 'lost' in some baggage version of the Bermuda Triangle, are certainly in the absolute monitory. I think most frequent flyers have a story or two of when their checked luggage went astray, just like you have, but when you take into account the many many flights where luggage turns up on the belt as expected, 'lost' is absolutely the smallest faction of the whole. We probably tend to forget about the 99.9% of successes because that's what should happen, and we remember the 0.1% of failures for the same reason, because they stand out and cause such inconvenience. I'm same as you BTW, a heavy-duty international flyer and while I avoid checked luggage as much as possible, it's often a necessary evil, and in my decades of flying I've only twice had a bag delayed or misdirected.

As to the AirTag being 'just another gadget', I should just stress that it's not really intended for tracking checked baggage, that was just something which popped up as a possible use case beyond the regular 'keeping track of your stuff' model aimed at mainstream people on the ground, so we wanted to look into this and help readers set expectations.

Qantas - Qantas Frequent Flyer

15 May 2019

Total posts 28

Like @DiscountEconomyPleb I use Tile Pro to track my luggage but I use it mainly to track the luggage coming off the plane. I have bought a few Air Tags for the same purpose. 

In Sydney, the limo drivers are charged for being in the premium pickup area and a few insist that you text them when your luggage is coming off so they know when to drive in. I use Tile tracking, which gives me a heads up when the baggage cart is approaching the back of the belt. That usually gives me a 2-3 minute heads up on when the bags will roll off the belt. Just long enough for the driver to arrive at the pick up zone.  

Qantas - Qantas Frequent Flyer

22 May 2018

Total posts 31

@ David

Thanks for response... much appreciated.

Qantas

22 Oct 2012

Total posts 292

Yesterday I flew SYD-ADL on a 737 with 2 checked bags with AirTags onboard.  Sadly, the FindMy app couldn't see them till I got to the carousel at ADL.  Yes I was connected to the onboard wifi thoughout the trip, and the app was aware of the 2 AirTags in our cabin luggage.

24 Oct 2010

Total posts 2501

That's some good real world feedback, thanks Phil. I'd suspected that if on a WiFi-equipped flight and on a smaller aircraft like a Boeing 737 or Airbus A320 one might be able to 'see' one's luggage, especially if the bag is close to your seat or there are other iPhone users connecting to a more distant bag. Nice to know your bags made it on the flight with you!

04 Nov 2012

Total posts 220

Can the Apple Tag be used to track say a car?.

20 Oct 2015

Total posts 159

It could be, but not when it's moving unless there's somebody in the car with an iPhone, or if the car is stationary in vicinity of other iPhones, eg at traffic lights, traffic jam, or at a parking lot. Have a search with Google for more on how that works.

Qantas - Qantas Frequent Flyer

22 May 2018

Total posts 31

Looks like they are being removed from sale according to TV news reports here in Brisbane - button batteries that are easily accessed are  a danger to kids.  


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