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With hopes that we’ll soon be able to resume the kind of regular air travel that we enjoyed before the onset of the global pandemic, one question that’s lingering on the minds of some is how well Apple’s new AirTags might work for checked in-flight baggage.
After all, we know that AirTags are great for tracking down your keys, and even for backpacks and handbags. On the other hand, they’re not designed for tracking your children or pets, and they definitely aren’t anti-theft devices.
So, while an AirTag in a carry-on seems like a reasonable idea, what about putting an AirTag on the luggage that’s going to go through the baggage handling system and into the belly of an aircraft?
Will an AirTag help you find out if your luggage made a wrong turn at Albuquerque?
Travel blog Executive Traveller was determined to answer these questions, and the good news is that the answer seems to mostly be yes, although they do note a couple of aspects that won’t work as well as you might have hoped.
So, the folks at Executive Traveller packed their bags, slapped on an AirTag, and headed to the airport to find out.
Are AirTags Allowed on Checked Luggage?
Right off the bat, you don’t need to be nervous about the fact that AirTags are “continually transmitting little Bluetooth burps” that might run afoul of airline policies. Bluetooth is no problem!
Executive Traveller’s David Flynn notes that AirTags are far from the first luggage trackers to do this. Tile’s been around for years, and the airlines have no problems with that, not to mention that they don’t ask passengers to turn off their wireless Bluetooth headphones and earphones before takeoff and landing.
Wireless headphones need to be removed so that passengers are paying attention, but they don’t have to be powered down.
Flynn also adds that while rechargeable lithium-ion batteries are banned from checked luggage, this doesn’t apply to the single-use CR2023 cell used by AirTags. In fact, this may be another reason why Apple opted for the inexpensive replaceable coin cell battery, rather than building a more sophisticated rechargeable AirTag.
While airlines have banned rechargeable lithium-ion battery packs from checked luggage (including so-called ‘smart luggage’), this doesn’t apply to the tiny single-use lithium CR2023 cells. Besides which, they’re already in millions of Tiles and key fobs sitting in cargo holds.David Flynn, Executive Traveller
Are AirTags Helpful at the Baggage Claim Carousel?
The one area where AirTags won’t work, Flynn notes, is at the baggage carousel. If you were hoping that an AirTag would let you grab a seat and avoid the crowd while you wait for your iPhone to tell you that your bag has arrived, you’re going to be disappointed, as this isn’t how AirTags work.
The gang at Executive Traveller thoroughly tested this scenario at an actual airport and discovered that it just doesn’t happen the way you might think because the AirTag-iPhone connection simply isn’t that quick.
The AirTag’s live here-I-am tracking isn’t intended for objects that are moving, unless they’re doing so at the most leisurely pace, and while the average airport luggage belt is no threat to Usain Bolt, it runs too fast for the AirTag’s virtual hand-waving to be properly identified by your iPhone.David Flynn, Executive Traveller
Flynn noted that even using an iPhone 12 and the Precision Finding feature, the only time his AirTagged bag showed up at all was when it was literally right in front of him, while standing at the edge of the carousel. This meant he could see it coming long before his iPhone notified him of it anyway.
After all, Precision Finding is intended to work at very close ranges, and doesn’t usually kick in until you’re within about 10–20 feet of an item. Based on our testing, if you’re looking for an AirTag in a larger room, it’s likely you’ll need to start closing on it by making it emit a sound first, before you can get close enough for Precision Finding to help you zero in on it.
Not surprisingly, Flynn added that other people’s iPhones won’t really help you in this scenario either, as the accuracy just isn’t close enough to even know if your bag is anywhere on the carousel — especially inside an airport terminal. Consider that even Find My iPhone doesn’t offer that level of accuracy, and your iPhone actually has a GPS built right into it.
At this point, AirTags also don’t offer any proactive proximity notifications, so there’s no way to get a notification when your AirTag pops up nearby. As Flynn notes, this would certainly be a useful addition for air travellers, but it’s something Apple would have to add in a future software update.
So What Are AirTags Good For?
Even if AirTags aren’t any help at snagging your bag off a carousel, Flynn adds there are still many other ways in which they can be of considerable benefit for frequent fliers.
For one thing, there’s the very obvious purpose for which the AirTag was designed: Helping you find lost items, and especially things you might leave behind.
AirTags have a clear application to help find anything you might travel with but also risk leaving behind or losing: your passport wallet, a briefcase or jacket, even the carry case where your noise-cancelling headphones reside when not in use (there’s a reason noise-cancelling cans are among the most numerous items when airports auction off their lost property).David Flynn, Executive Traveller
While the lack of proximity notifications means you won’t know immediately when you walk away from an item, you’ll at least be able to figure out where you left it — or where it’s been taken to once somebody else picks it up.
Further, having an AirTag on your checked bag can still help you at the baggage claim point in those cases where it’s already been moved off the belt into a static waiting area. Since the bag isn’t moving at that point, the Find My app could be a big help in letting you know that it’s somewhere else in the baggage area, saving you the trouble of standing by the conveyor belt waiting for a bag that never comes.
Lastly, there’s the other very obvious advantage of knowing whether your bag even arrived at the same airport that you did.
A colleague recounted how, on arriving on a flight from Los Angeles to Sydney, her bag failed to appear on the belt, and she was eventually told her bag was in fact among many which were not loaded at LAX. That turned out not be the case – all the bags had made it to Sydney Airport – and a quick check of the Find My app would have shown they were somewhere in the vicinity rather than 12,000km away.David Flynn, Executive Traveller
Since eventually every iPhone and iPad on the planet will be capable of reporting the location of stray AirTags, there’s an excellent chance that you’ll be able to track where your bag actually ended up, even if it’s on the other side of the globe.