Southwest Airlines recently became the latest U.S. carrier to roll out a bag-tracking tool for customers.
Now live on both the airline’s website and mobile app, the service allows customers to view the status of checked luggage from the point it’s dropped off to when it's loaded and then unloaded from the plane.
It’s a welcome step for customers after 2022 saw airline meltdowns lead to alarming images of vast luggage piles at airports in Europe and the U.S.
In the wake of that meltdown, the carrier’s new bag-tracking tool comes as part of a larger $1.3 billion tech investment by the airline this year.
Previously, only the three so-called “legacy” U.S. airlines—American, Delta, and United—offered customer-facing bag-tracking tools (Delta was the first to deploy the service).
Southwest’s chief commercial officer, Ryan Green, characterized the company’s new tool like this:
“By providing additional transparency and information to customers about where their bags are during their travel journey, we’re elevating the travel experience and removing friction for our customers,” Green said on a conference call with analysts last month.
Whether you fly with Southwest or another U.S. airline, here’s what to know about tracking a bag—how to use each carrier's system, what the limitations are, and how airline offerings compare to third-party tools such as Apple AirTags.
How to use airline bag trackers
As with most airlines, Southwest’s mobile app will probably be your best bet for bag tracking, since you’ll most often need the service while traveling.
From the app’s home page, click the menu icon (denoted by three lines) in the top left corner.
When the menu appears, click “Track Checked Bags.”
(Screenshot of Southwest Airlines mobile app menu)
From there, a new window will open. You’ll need to provide the trip confirmation number you got with your ticket and, at a minimum, your last name.
(Screenshot of bag tracker on Southwest Airlines' mobile app)
Then click “Track bag(s).”
A screenshot shared by Southwest shows what an actively tracked bag looks like.
(Screenshot of a tracked bag on Southwest Airlines)
In the hypothetical example above, you can see that the bag tag was printed in Las Vegas at 6:37am. At 7:29am, it was loaded onto the plane in Vegas.
Finally, it was unloaded from the aircraft in Tucson, Arizona, at 9:39am.
Bag tracking essentially works the same on most airlines that offer it.
On American Airlines, as soon you check a bag in, the bag-tracking tool will appear on the home screen of the airline’s mobile app— as long as your AAdvantage frequent flyer number is attached to your flight reservation, that is.
Like Southwest’s new tool, American’s system will then update you on when your bag is loaded as well as unloaded onto an aircraft. When the bag reaches a baggage claim carousel, the app will say “arrived.”
If you didn’t attach a frequent flyer account to your reservation, swipe up on the bottom toolbar in the app. Click “Track Your Bags” and then search using your record locator or bag tag number.
(Screenshot of bag tracker on American Airlines' mobile app)
You can also tack your bags using a desktop browser.
Delta Air Lines
To track a bag with Delta’s mobile app, click “More” on the bottom toolbar, then select “Track My Bags.”
That will take you to a page where you’ll search for your luggage using your bag tag number, found on that printed slip the customer service agent gives you when you drop off your bag.
(Screenshot of bag tracker on Delta Air Lines' mobile app)
Outside the app, tracking is also available here.
United’s bag tracking is available exclusively in the mobile app, though you can find answers to frequently asked questions online.
Under the app’s “More” section (again, at the bottom right of the screen), scroll down to “Tools and Services” and click “Track my bags.”
Once you do this, you should see your bag-tracking information appear.
(Screenshot of menu options on United Airlines' mobile app)
If you don’t see your info, you can pull it up using your confirmation number, by typing in your bag tag number, or by using your phone to scan the barcode on your bag tag slip.
In the Works: Alaska Airlines
There will soon be another U.S. airline with bag tracking.
Alaska Airlines is testing the technology now, with plans to deploy it in the near future, company officials shared at an industry conference last week.
Alaska is also planning to offer customers the opportunity to file lost bag claims using the app, thereby avoiding any wait in line.
What Airline Bag Trackers Don't Do
As helpful as they are, these bag-tracking tools aren’t perfect.
If you’re traveling on an itinerary that starts on one airline but includes a connection to, say, an international partner, you often can’t see the status of the bag on the new airline. You may just see that there was a “custody” exchange. (If the second airline offers bag tracking, you can try that app to locate your luggage).
Additionally, many of these trackers don’t provide actual live location-sharing to tell you in real time where, exactly, your stuff is at any given moment. Instead, airline bag tracking provides a snapshot of where your bag was at a certain point in time—i.e., “It was last scanned at 1:00 when it was unloaded from the plane.” (To be fair, some airlines do offer push notifications as luggage is transferred, adding an element closer to real-time updates for some passengers.)
The desire for live location-sharing is a big reason many customers have turned to third-party tools.
“Bags are scanned as they are loaded and unloaded from the aircraft,” noted airline industry analyst Henry Harteveldt, president of Atmosphere Research Group. “But I don’t believe any airline provides the same degree of transparency in showing a bag’s precise location that devices such as Apple’s AirTags offer.”
Might future technological advances help?
Further improved automation could make the bag-scanning process more seamless, Harteveldt said, provided the airline is willing to make the investment.
“Even then,” he said, “airlines will need to invest in providing more clarity to passengers showing their checked bags’ location, so that the airline is viewed as the most trusted source of information, rather than a third party like Apple.”