In the low-tech world of luggage, Robert Plath's insight was akin to the invention of the wheel: Why not attach wheels to a suitcase and let people roll their way through airports? That was back in 1987, and Plath, then a pilot at Northwest Airlines, called his invention the "Rollaboard."
The luggage business would never be the same. Every major manufacturer began producing its own version of Plath's creation, and money rolled in to what had been a stagnant industry. "We saw a double-digit increase in sales during the mid-1990s," notes Skip Kotkins, president of Skyway Luggage Co., which was founded in 1910. "People had a perfectly good suitcase, but they went out and bought a trolley case."
What is revolutionary about the trolley case is that it changed travel behavior. "Luggage adapts to lifestyle," Kotkins explains. "With the trolley case, however, people adapted their lifestyle to accommodate luggage. It was so convenient that people said, 'I'm only going to take what I can pack into one of these suckers.' "
Plath's burst of creativity has been followed by a series of incremental improvements. The trolley case has become more resilient, stylish, compact, and ergonomic: Multistage telescoping handles are now standard issue, handle grips are more lovable, fabrics are more durable, and packing systems are more intuitive. But in general, the design remains the same. "Every year, we make about 20 alterations to our Wheel-A-Ways, and the changes are basically invisible to the consumer," says Jeff Bertelsen, senior vice president of design for luggage company Tumi Inc.
What does the future hold? Bags will be fine-tuned, but no one has identified the next big change-the-game innovation. "One hundred years from now, when you're traveling to the moon, you're still going to schlepp your stuff pretty much the way you do today," cracks Jay Myers, cofounder of luggage company Andiamo Inc.
A version of this article appeared in the September 2001 issue of Fast Company magazine.