Luggage that can help you navigate the airport or even let you know where it is if it did not follow you to your destination is the biggest innovation in baggage since wheels. But soon, it may not be welcome in airline cargo holds.
American Airlines said on Friday that it would not allow passengers to check smart luggage unless they first remove the batteries that fuel the high-tech features. According to Ross Feinstein, a spokesman for the airline, the new rule, which takes effect on Jan. 15, comes as powered luggage is getting more popular.
“We’ve looked at the prevalence of these bags as they most likely are going to be a hot item, no pun intended, this holiday season,” he said. “We have nothing against a smart bag, we understand customers like them,” but the airline also has to make sure they are safe to transport.
The bags themselves are not an issue, but the lithium ion batteries that power them have caused problems in the sky. In 2010, a United Parcel Service 747 plane was carrying tens of thousands of the batteries to Cologne, Germany, from Dubai when one battery ignited, causing a destructive chain reaction that brought down the jet. When Boeing was rolling out its 787 Dreamliners in 2013, a problem with the lithium ion batteries that powered some onboard equipment grounded the fleet in its first months of service. Boeing eventually redesigned the batteries and their housing.
Federal Aviation Administration guidelines already bar passengers from packing spare lithium ion batteries in their checked baggage, and strongly suggest that travelers keep any devices with the batteries in their carry-on bags. That way, any smoke or fire from the batteries could be quickly detected. In the cargo hold, a fire may not be noticed by the automatic suppression system until it has already become a critical problem.
American Airlines, so far, is the only United States carrier to announce this kind of restriction.
Mr. Feinstein said American Airlines crews were trained to deal with fires in the cabin, but there was much less they could do to extinguish flames in the baggage compartment. For that reason, American Airlines will only allow smart luggage onboard if the battery can be disconnected. The carrier will not require travelers to take out the battery if they are bringing the bag into the cabin. But they must be able to check the bag if there is not enough space in the overhead bin.
“Just make sure the battery is removable,” Mr. Feinstein said. “If it’s not removable, we won’t be permitting it to fly in the cargo hold or in the cabin.”
Smart luggage manufacturers, however, said they were disappointed about the ban. “If you make a removable battery, the suitcase will no longer be smart. It will be a stupid suitcase,” said Tomi Pierucci, the chief executive and co-founder of Bluesmart. Taking away the suitcase’s power supply, he said, would disable features like USB charging ports and GPS tracking. “If the airline loses your suitcase, you won’t be able to find it.”
Tim Ryan, the chief marketing officer for Modobag, said his company’s products used lithium-titanium batteries that were much less likely to ignite, although he also noted that those batteries were removable when necessary.
“Absolutely no one wants to develop a product that would in any way, shape or form be problematic in getting either aboard an aircraft, or once it’s aboard an aircraft, we don’t want a product that’s combustible.”