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New luggage rules: US airlines move to ban ‘smart suitcases’

Anastasia Dagaeva
December 18, 2017

Starting on January 15, 2018 major US carriers are moving to ban smart luggage from all aircraft. American Airlines recently announced that "as part of safety management and risk mitigation," the carrier would ban any bag with an integrated lithium-ion battery. Alaska Airlines and Delta Airlines released similar statements with the same deadline. 

Smart bags have grown popular over the last few years thanks to a wave of development around internet-of-things technology and the growing needs of power-hungry travelers. Bluesmart, arguably the first smart luggage company, raised several rounds of crowd and venture funding with its bags that tracked locations, had integrated scales and could keep travelers powered for days at a time. Its success launched another wave of competing bags from companies like Away, Barracuda and Modobag, reports Forbes.

Global airlines body, The International Air Transport Association (IATA), said it could issue industry-wide standards on the new luggage soon. IATA senior vice-president Nick Careen said he expected others could quickly follow the example of the US carriers. 

Airline officials say they wanted to get the word out early to stop passengers from making purchases (for themselves or others) that can run several hundred dollars during the holiday season. “We wanted to get out ahead of the holiday season given that it’s one of the trendy gifts for travelers,” American spokeswoman Leslie Scott told the Chicago Tribune.

Smart bags have a wide range of features. Bag-maker Away says its $225 carry-on will charge a drained iPhone five times, while G-RO’s version, at $374, comes with charging and GPS tracking. At $449, Bluesmart’s carry-on includes those features and lets travelers lock their bag from a smartphone or weigh it on a built-in scale. 

Smart suitcases are able to perform a slew of technological feats because of lithium-ion batteries, which have been known to catch fire or explode on flights. A faulty lithium-ion battery was the reason Samsung’s Galaxy Note 7 phone was banned from planes after it kept spontaneously erupting, notes New York Post

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) is already concerned with lithium batteries in the cargo hold. While it allows things like laptops to be checked, it suggests they be placed in carry-on bags instead. It also requires that any spare lithium batteries travel only in carry-on baggage with passengers. 

"The airlines' action is consistent with our guidance to not carry lithium-ion batteries in the cargo hold," said FAA spokeswoman. The future ban covers roughly 80% of air traffic in the USA, which, naturally, puts the nascent smart luggage industry in a pretty tough spot. These sweeping changes have left some startups feeling singled out. 

Smart luggage manufacturers have pushed back. "As we speak, we are talking with the airlines so they can review our products and get the proper exemptions in place," Tomi Pierucci, co-founder and CEO of Bluesmart told Forbes."We are fully compliant with Department of Transportation [DOT] and FAA and the law requires that the product is built the way ours is. We are providing all the technical documentation and the DOT Request for Interpretation as needed”. 

So, solution appears to be where battery packs can be removed. The problem is that the majority of smart luggage has power packs that are integrated into the baggage. By the time airlines and smart luggage manufacturers are trying to find a solution for everybody, passengers will at least be safe to travel with their smart bags over the holiday season. But as of January 15th, many air travellers may be stuck with smart luggage that won't take off.