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October 2018, Las Vegas

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Smart luggage ignites fears over safety

For many a travel tech start-up, meeting the needs of the cool traveller may seem like a smart move, but not when baggage blows up! Sally White reports

As 2018 opens, hi-tech is losing more than a bit of its lustre, thanks to everything from Uber, Silicon Valley’s fall from grace and Apple admitting it slowed down old phones.

Now the cool traveller is being hit with a ban on smart luggage by just about all the world’s airlines. The International Air Travel Association (IATA) has announced a restriction for its members from today on the grounds that the luggage may just not be safe. The problem is the lithium batteries.

IATA has announced a restriction for its members from today on smart luggage

Warnings have been around for years, and the US Federal Aviation Authority (FAA) banned the Samsung Galaxy Note7 back in 2016 on fears of battery combustion. So, it could be a sign of the current pushback that IATA has acted only now. However, last summer the FAA announced that in the year to date 18 incidents involving lithium-ion batteries on airplanes and in airports had been reported, up from 31 incidents in the whole of 2016, 16 incidents in 2015, nine in 2014, and eight in 2013. 

The US website ConsumerReports.org says that “Though the chance of any one device igniting is slim, such fires are now occurring once every 10 or 11 days on a flight somewhere in the US.”

Bags equipped with a lithium battery will only be acceptable for carriage if it is possible to remove the battery from the bag

According to IATA’s website, “bags equipped with a lithium battery will only be acceptable for carriage if it is possible to remove the battery from the bag”. IATA covers around 83% of the industry, but the rest are expected to follow.

“Bags with the battery installed must be transported as carry-on luggage. If a smart bag is to fly as checked baggage, the battery must be removed and carried in the passenger cabin,” it adds.

This follows action by several major US airlines last month to restrict smart luggage on their flights. The airlines, which included American Airlines, Delta, and Alaska Airlines, cited safety concerns over the bags' rechargeable lithium-ion batteries catching fire in the cargo holds. Already, some business jets and a few commercial ones carry a device called a PlaneGard to handle laptop battery fires.

Over the last year or so, there has been a dramatic increase in the smart luggage production range (and some great start-ups). The wide range of bags available include features ranging from GPS or Bluetooth tracking, built-in scales, location finding, an engine to turn the luggage into a vehicle, remote locking and unlocking through a smartphone app, or a battery to charge a phone or tablet.

So, the cool traveller can still swan through the airports flashing the kit (or ride if the luggage is motorised), but at checkout the spell breaks. Large luggage loses its electronic magic along with its lithium battery, before going into the hold.

More knocks to the cool image

Fortunately, many of the manufacturers have designed their luggage with a detachable battery. The Daily Telegraph reported after the US airlines’ move that: “Several smart luggage companies including Bluesmart, Raden, Away and Modobag - all of which are listed among the IATA’s non-exclusive list of available technologies that should undergo a safety risk assessment process by the airline operating the flight - have noted that their smart devices feature removable batteries.”

However, as Conde Nast Traveller’s website points out, here comes another knock to the cool image. “Even if your bag's battery is removable, that doesn't mean removing it is convenient. Many require you to use a TSA-approved screwdriver to get to the batteries...”

Well, OK, companies include a screwdriver in the kit, it acknowledges. But “still, the main appeal of these high tech pieces of luggage is their convenience. If high-flying business customers have to get on their hand and knees and use a tiny screwdriver each time they go on a plane, they might start to wonder if they can just turn their phones off for the duration of the flight instead!”

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