Smart Luggage Hits Turbulence as Airlines Worry About Inflight Safety

The world’s first motorized, rideable luggage is demonstrated at TBEX Stockholm in 2016. Photo Credit: Accidental Travel Writer.

Airlines and Aviation

First it was Samsung Galaxy Note 7 smartphones that had airlines worried about in-flight safety. Now it is smart luggage with built-in batteries. Could they catch fire in the cargo hold? Is it safe for passengers to carry them on board in the cabin?

I thought I had witnessed the coolest innovation in luggage since wheels when I stumbled across Modobag while attending  TBEX Stockholm in the summer of 2016.

Billed as the world’s first rideable luggage, Motobag was equipped with a built-in motor, allowing airline passengers to whiz down the concourse riding atop their carry-on luggage rather than carrying it.

If it seemed like an idea whose time had come, I did have a few reservations. One was how it would be charged. Another was much interior space the motor would take up. A third was how much the motor would add to the bag’s weight.

I knew that wheels not only reduced the amount of space within a suitcase – they also added considerably to its weight. That’s why I’ve always opted for two-wheel rather than four-wheel models, even though four-wheel models are much easier to navigate.

Self-weighing Luggage

Little did I know that luggage that could weigh itself was going to be the next innovation in travel accessories!

How many times have I stressed over how much stuff I could stuff into my luggage without having to pay an overweight baggage charge?

A couple of times I miscalculated and had to repack (and throw stuff away) at the airport. And other times I’ve erred on the side of caution, only to discover that I really could have fit in that extra pair of shoes or another bottle of wine if I had wanted.

When I noticed a low-tech fish scale on sale at a hardware store, I bought it, and it has served me well. It is surprisingly accurate, and I don’t have to worry about the batteries running out of power just when I need them most.

When I showed it to a friend in Bangkok, she liked it so much, she asked me to buy 10 of them for her so she could give them to her girlfriends as “stocking stuffers”.

Smart Luggage

It seemed like a travel weary road warrior’s dream come true: a suitcase that could weigh itself. Not only that, it could be locked (or unlocked) from a remote location. It could even charge your phone or your tablet!

If you left it behind in the toilet or at the bar – not to worry! Why it even had Bluetooth tracking so you’d have no problem tracking it down if you left it behind.

As someone that has often lost track of my stuff when I travel, I can fully understand the advantages of a function such as this.

But it’s not just about forgetfulness. There is also the issue of theft.

Considering the increasing problem with in-flight thievery and bags being stolen on airport-bound buses, that’s nothing to sneeze at.

Theft aboard aircraft is becoming an increasing problem, the South China Morning Post reports. Photo Credit: Accidental Travel Writer.

According to the South China Morning Post, an influential English language daily newspaper in Hong Kong, crime is on the rise both in the air and on the ground.

Passengers are having their carry-on bags pilfered while sleeping or running to the toilet in flight. And they are also having their suitcases stolen while riding buses to and from the airport.

Passengers have even been robbed by security staff at Hong Kong International Airport. At least one security officer has been arrested for stealing something like US$1,000 from a passenger. But I believe incidents such as this are rare.

Inflight Fire Hazard

The only problem with smart suitcases is that the batteries that they use to charge your smart devices with might catch fire in an airliner’s cargo hold. Talk about an unexpected consequence!

It is within this context that I received a press release from Korean Air informing me that from 15 January onwards, the airline would “regulate” passengers carrying on or checking in smart luggage.

According to the airline, smart luggage includes features and devices such as USB chargers, Wi-Fi hotspots, GPS, auto locking systems, and motorized wheels.

“Smart Luggage with non-removable lithium-ion batteries may pose risks for fire hazard in cargo holds or cabins,” the press release says.

“In accordance with the regulations issued by IATA towards ensuring flight safety, Korean Air will prohibit passengers from checking in or carrying Smart Luggage with non-removable batteries.”

U.S. Federal Aviation Agency

Korean Air is following the lead of several U.S. airlines. Alaska Airlines, American Airlines, and Delta Airlines announced in early January that they would prohibit passengers from taking smart luggage on their flights. The fear is that lithium-ion batteries might overheat and catch fire mid-air.

The U.S. Federal Aviation Agency has long advised against carrying uninstalled lithium-ion batteries in checked luggage, and I had never understood why.

I got caught out once when going through pre-check in security in Thailand, and I didn’t know what was causing the lights on the X-ray machine to start flashing. Surely there was nothing in there that shouldn’t be there. Was the X-ray machine malfunctioning?

After three unsuccessful attempts, I was asked to open my suitcase, and it underwent a thorough search.

Little did I know that I had a few random batteries stashed inside. I apologized profusely, but I don’t think the security guard believed me when I told her I didn’t know they were there.

She just gave me one of those “yeah, sure!” looks.

Flyer Beware!

Without government regulation, airlines are taking the initiative on this issue, so it really is an issue of “flyer beware”.

On some airlines,  you’ll be okay as long as the batteries are removable and you remove them before either handing over your checked in luggage at the check-in counter or carrying your carry-ons on board your flight.

On some airlines, you can leave the batteries in your carry-ons as long as you keep them with you and they remain with you throughout the flight. But on other airlines, they want you to remove the batteries and put them somewhere else.

At least two major U.S. airlines have yet to formulate a policy. Southwest Airlines and United Airlines are still evaluating the situation – at least when I wrote this. Does that mean they won’t have formulated a policy by the time you read this?

Cathay Pacific Airways

Hong Kong’s hometown airline has a clearly outlined policy, which a quick Google search revealed. I’m just surprised it took me this long to find out about it. It was posted in late December!

From 1 January 2018, smart bags with non-removable lithium batteries will not be accepted as cabin or checked baggage.

Smart bags will not be considered as a portable electronic device (PED); their batteries will be handled as a power bank or spare lithium battery.

Checked baggage

  • Passengers who travel with a smart bag must be able to remove the battery in case the bag has to be checked-in at any point during the journey.
  • The passenger must carry the removed lithium battery in their cabin baggage and it will be treated in accordance with existing spare lithium battery requirements.

Cabin baggage

  • If the passenger would like to take the smart bag as cabin baggage, the battery must be removable and should remain installed inside the bag.
  • If the battery cannot be removed, the bag will not be permitted for carriage as checked or cabin baggage.

I don’t have any smart luggage, and I don’t have any intention of buying any smart luggage anytime soon. I have enough problems with my smartphone.

Better Safe Than Sorry

Since regulations seem to vary from carrier to carrier – and since they might be adjusted from time to time – make sure you check with your airline before leaving for the airport.

And don’t believe everything you read online because there is a lot of misinformation out there.

The last time I made an overseas trip, I decided to check to make sure that my flight was going to depart on time before leaving for the airport. It wasn’t as easy as I had expected.

The airline’s own website didn’t offer this information. At least I couldn’t find it. I tried calling the airline, but I got a pre-recorded message advising me to call back during business hours.

I did, however, find a third-party website that was specifically designed to inform passengers of the status of their flights: on time, delayed (and if so, by how long) and cancelled.

“What an excellent resource!” I thought.

According to the website, my flight was going to be delayed by at least two hours. It was an early morning departure so I was absolutely thrilled.

“I can go back to bed,” I thought.

Plaza Premium Lounge at Hong Kong International Airport. Photo Credit: Accidental Travel Writer.

Fortunately, my better judgement intervened. Rather than going back to bed, I continued to surf the net, eventually finding another website, which offered conflicting information.

I decided to play it safe and head to the airport as originally planned. If the flight really had been delayed, I could hang out at the paid-in lounge, I figured. My credit card offers complimentary access to the Plaza Premium Lounge at Hong Kong International Airport.

I have no idea where the first website got its information, but it was wrong. My flight departed on schedule. And I only had time for a quick cup of coffee before heading to the gate and boarding my flight.

And, no! I didn’t ride a MotoBag. I walked there on my own two feet.

Smart luggage might be an idea whose time has come, but make sure you understand your airline’s regulations before leaving for the airport.


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