Passengers wait with their luggage at the airport.

Tying bright ribbons or slapping on fluorescent stickers doesn't always ensure your bags arrive where you do. Photo: Reuters

David Deeble opened his suitcase and realised that his machete was missing. So was the plunger, the stuffed rabbit and the juggling pins – not to mention his clothes.

A comedic juggler for a cruise line, Deeble discovered six hours before the ship's departure from Singapore that he had grabbed the wrong black wheeled bag on his way out of the airport.

As luggage has become increasingly indistinguishable, travellers have tried ever more ways to set their bags apart, like tying bright ribbons on the handle or slapping on fluorescent stickers on the side.

Now, some companies and airlines are developing a digital alternative to the paper tag, not only to find lost bags but also to make check-in quicker.

Last year, British Airways conducted tests on a digital tag. The airline hopes to have it available to customers by the end of this year, a spokeswoman said via email.

"The device is designed to create a hassle-free check-in experience," she said. "It will save them time at the airport. The personalised digital bag tag changes with the swipe of a smartphone to upload the traveller's next destination."

Air France-KLM is working with FastTrack, a technology firm based in London and Amsterdam, on a tracking system that works through a smartphone app.

"Our aim is to take the stress out of travel and put you in control of your bag," said David van Hoytema, a co-founder of FastTrack.

The system consists of two devices. A digital luggage tag will replace a paper version. A tracking device goes inside a bag and tells the owner its location through a smartphone app, using Bluetooth when a traveller's phone is near the bag, and GPS and GSM cellular technology when Bluetooth is out of range.

Van Hoytema said travellers would be able to use the devices together or independently. Travellers flying any airline would be able to use the tracking device.

Air France hopes to have it available to travellers by the end of this year, said Carole Peytavin, the airline's customer experience director for medium-haul activities.

Airbus is working on a suitcase with an embedded digital luggage tag that uses a cellular connection plus GPS for tracking. The device, called Bag2Go, is expected to be available in the near future.

The airline industry hopes it could help ease what is one of the biggest headaches of air travel - the lost bag. Airbus estimates that some 26 million bags are lost every year. While most are misdirected, airlines and customers say that a portion, even if small, are taken by mistake.

"We absolutely receive reports that that occurs," said Brian Parrish, a Southwest Airlines spokesman, characterising the rate of mix-ups as "a very small percentage of our customer-reported incidents" of bags that fail to appear at a traveller's destination.

A JetBlue spokeswoman echoed Parrish's comment. "While we are not able to release figures, we did some research and found this does happen from time to time," the spokeswoman, Tamara Young, said in an email.

Since it does occur, the airlines are looking for a way to reduce the incidence of such mix-ups.

"Because many bags look alike, we encourage customers to check their claim check number when they pick up their bag," a United Airlines spokesman, Charles Hobart, said via email.

But the advice is not always heeded.

Another passenger took a bag owned by Ric Fleisher, an entrepreneur, when he flew to London to speak at a conference. Fleisher had a luggage tag on his tan bag, but that wasn't enough to keep another traveller from walking off with it.

"I just came with the clothes on my back so I had to go to Marks and Spencer; I got a cheap shirt and a change of underwear," he said. "I was a little perturbed."

Now Fleisher takes no chances. Shortly after the incident, he tied two colored ribbons – one red, one with racing-stripe checks – to his bag handle, and when he eventually went shopping for a new bag, he chose one in bright blue. The eye-catching colour also helps speed up his stop at the baggage carousel. "If I can see my bag when it comes out I can grab it quick, and I don't want it to be mistaken by anybody else," he said.

Sometimes, even a distinctive piece of luggage can suffer from a case of mistaken identity. Steve Ward, chief executive of a matchmaking service who travels frequently, said he once inadvertently swapped bags while on a skiing trip, even though the bag in question was oddly shaped for carrying snowboarding gear.

"It was such a specialised bag it was amazing somebody had an identical bag," he said.

Doug Howard, the chief executive of an information technology security company, who travels a couple of times each week for work, could have used the new technology when he checked into his hotel around 10 pm with what he described as a "standard black bag that 90 per cent of America travels with." When he opened the bag, it was full of women's clothes. With a 7 am breakfast presentation looming, Howard called the airline, which arranged to have someone come to his hotel and exchange Howard's suitcase for the bag he had inadvertently taken.

Howard received fresh clothes in time for his breakfast meeting, but the incident left such an impression that he decided to make one of his company's promotional giveaway items a brightly colored wrapper for bag handles.

"When you feel the pain, you feel the necessity," he said. "I figured I wasn't the only one in the world who had that problem."

The New York Times