The Passenger Documented: Airline Luggage Labels, Bag Tags, and Tickets

Aviation Museum & Library

Mar 28, 2014 - Dec 14, 2014

Airline Luggage Labels, Bag Tags, and Tickets

During the nineteenth century, luggage labels were first supplied by steamship companies to passengers for identification purposes­. Soon after, hotels, resorts, and railroad companies were also offering labels, and printing companies began producing artistic, eye-catching designs. Passengers began to accumulate these labels on their luggage as status symbols and pictorial records of their journeys. Following the development of airline commercial passenger services in the 1920s, luggage-label art became an important tool for advertising air services. Labels were usually illustrated with the airline’s logo and the latest aircraft in its fleet (8, 12, 15, 17), and often included destinations (2, 5, 11, 13, 14), route maps, or light and dark backgrounds symbolizing night and day service (4). During the 1930s, 40s and 50s, the art on luggage labels reached a high level of sophistication, comparable to that found on airline travel posters. By the 1960s, carriers reverted back to issuing labels designed specifically for identification purposes (18–24). These were usually branded with the airline’s corporate colors and logo and featured lines for a name, address, and phone number. 

Along with paper luggage labels and destination tags, airlines often distributed plastic, leather, and cardboard luggage identification tags. These were primarily issued to flight crews for their baggage until the 1950s, when carriers realized their promotional value and began to regularly offer them to their passengers in the hope that the tag would remain on the bag for an extended period of time. A more durable form of identification, crew tags (12, 14, 15, 18), along with V.I.P. frequent-flyer tags (2–11) were usually crafted from thick plastic or leather and came with leather straps. Crew tags usually featured the carrier’s color scheme and logo, with names, titles, and contact information permanently inscribed. Standard complimentary passenger tags were usually plastic, cardboard, or a combination of both, with the airline’s logo embossed on one side and lines where a name, address, and phone number could be hand-written or typed on the paper, plastic, or paper insert on the opposite side (17, 21–28). Sometimes airlines would also issue cross-promotional, special event tags, such as this tag from the 1984 Democratic Convention (20). 

First issued by steamship lines and later by railroads, luggage tags initially served to identify a bag’s owner, its ultimate destination, and whether it would be stored in the luggage hold or used in transit. In 1882, John Michael Lyons of New Brunswick, Canada patented a detachable coupon tag for rail lines to track luggage. The tag showed the issuing station, the destination, and a consecutively generated identification number. The lower half was a copy of the upper half and was separated and kept by the passenger, while the upper half remained attached to the bag with a brass sleeve and a leather strap. By the 1930s, airlines were issuing paper luggage destination tags with standardized information, as specified by the Warsaw Convention of 1929. Each tag included the place of departure, the destination, the name and address of the carrier, the ticket number, and the number and weight of bags. Up until the 1990s, tags were attached to bags by a string and contained the airline’s name, flight number, record locator, and the International Air Transport Authority (IATA) code for the destination airport. Since the 1990s, cardboard luggage destination tags have been replaced by tape-like loop tags that are attached by adhesive and are imprinted with bar codes for easy computer recognition.  

During the nineteenth century, steamship companies and rail lines set the precedent of selling tickets to reserve specified travel services. When commercial airlines arose during the 1920s, tickets came in many forms. Beginning in the 1930s and continuing into the present, airline tickets have consisted of long, rectangular strips of paper, or coupons, for each leg of a flight. The information contained on the ticket became standardized among airlines after the Warsaw Convention of 1929. This agreement stipulated that tickets contain the name of the purchaser, the name and address of the carrier, the date and place of issue, the place of departure and terminus, along with designated stopping places. Tickets could be purchased by phone, at the carrier’s ticket office, at the airport, or through a travel agency and usually came in a jacket that incorporated the name and logo of the carrier, along with aircraft and service promotions. A flight packet with information about the airline, the flight, and the destination was often included (10, 12). Before passengers boarded, tickets were validated by the originating carrier with a validation plate that imprinted the carrier’s name and identification number (13–15), and then boarding passes were issued. Within the last decade, internet-purchased e-tickets have become more common than coupon tickets and have allowed passengers to print their own boarding passes, or produce them from a machine at the terminal. 

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