Airlines Restrict 'Smart Luggage' Over Fire Hazards Posed By Batteries : The Two-Way Today's suitcases can charge your phone, track their location and even propel themselves behind you. But concerns about their batteries igniting in cargo holds have led airlines to issue new policies.
NPR logo Airlines Restrict 'Smart Luggage' Over Fire Hazards Posed By Batteries

Airlines Restrict 'Smart Luggage' Over Fire Hazards Posed By Batteries

Three major U.S. airlines have announced new restrictions on "smart luggage" because of the fire hazard posed by lithium-ion batteries in cargo holds. The airlines say any such batteries need to be removable. Rob Carr/Getty Images hide caption

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Rob Carr/Getty Images

Three major U.S. airlines have announced new restrictions on "smart luggage" because of the fire hazard posed by lithium-ion batteries in cargo holds. The airlines say any such batteries need to be removable.

Rob Carr/Getty Images

Airlines including American, Delta and Alaska have announced restrictions on so-called smart luggage because the lithium-ion batteries found in many of these suitcases pose a fire risk.

These kinds of bags have proliferated in recent years, including motorized suitcases you can ride and one pitched as an autonomous "robot companion" that follows you around.

Prices can range from $275 to more than $1,000, depending on a bag's bells and whistles, like device charging, GPS tracking, remote locking and built-in weight sensors. But these features require power, often in the form of lithium-ion batteries.

The batteries are in many electronics these days, because they are extremely efficient. But Li-ion batteries have the potential to overheat and ignite, as shown in dramatic fashion by the Samsung Galaxy Note 7, which the Department of Transportation banned from flights last fall after dozens of reports of the smartphone's batteries smoking, catching fire and exploding. In 2015, many airlines banned hoverboards owing to similar concerns.

"Beginning Jan. 15, customers who travel with a smart bag must be able to remove the battery in case the bag has to be checked at any point in the customer's journey. If the battery cannot be removed, the bag will not be allowed," American said in a statement on Friday. The same day, Delta and Alaska announced similar policies on their flights.

American's policy dictates that if the bag is carry-on size, passengers can take the luggage onboard, so long as the battery can be removed if needed. If passengers need to check the bag, the battery must be removed and carried onboard. But if the bag has a nonremovable battery, it can't be checked or carried on.

An FAA spokesman told The Washington Post that the airlines' policies are "consistent with our guidance that lithium-ion batteries should not be carried in the cargo hold."

The FAA's policy on portable electronic devices containing these batteries states:

"Devices containing lithium metal or lithium ion batteries (laptops, smartphones, tablets, etc.) should be carried in carry-on baggage when possible. When these devices must be carried in checked baggage, they should be turned completely off, protected from accidental activation, and packed so they are protected from damage.

"Spare (uninstalled) lithium metal and lithium ion batteries are always prohibited in checked baggage and must be placed in carry-on. When a carry-on bag is checked at the gate or at planeside, any spare lithium batteries must be removed from the bag and kept with the passenger in the aircraft cabin."

In May, the International Air Transport Association, an airline trade association, published suggested smart bag guidelines for airlines. Its list of hazards and potential consequences is enough to make any flyer a little nervous.

A spokesman for American tells NPR that rules banning the bags' powerful lithium batteries from checked baggage aren't because they're more likely to catch fire in a cargo hold, but because it's hard to fight a fire that breaks out there.

"You have very limited options in the cargo hold," American spokesman Ross Feinstein says. If a fire starts there, the crew can use fire suppression bottles to fight it, "but you can only deploy them once."

"In the cabin, passengers and crew can fight a fire," he adds.

For manufacturers of luggage with nonremovable batteries, the airlines' restrictions are a blow.

"Before and at the time of production, we did our due diligence to make sure that we complied with all international regulations defined by DOT and FAA," one such company, Bluesmart, said on its website. "While most airlines understand and approve of smart luggage, others might still be getting up to speed. We are saddened by these latest changes to some airline regulations and feel it is a step back not only for travel technology but it also presents an obstacle to streamlining and improving the way we all travel."

Some luggage makers advertise that their bags are "TSA-approved."

But TSA does not approve or endorse bags. And Feinstein says that on American, there won't be any exemptions to its policies, no matter the manufacturer.

"We know these bags are getting popular," Feinstein says. "American is not opposed to smart bags. However, the battery must be removable."