How 'smart luggage' makers plan to beat airline bans

By Bloomberg News, December 20 2017

Considering that the last major innovation in luggage was a four-wheeled suitcase patented in 1972, it’s understandable that recent shifts have thrown the travel industry for a loop.

For the past few years, makers of so-called smart luggage – that’s bags with anything from a USB charging port to motorized wheels – have disrupted the market.

Airlines are now taking note with arched brows: earlier this month, Qantas and Virgin Australia joined international carriers including American Airlines, Cathay Pacific and Delta Airlines in announcing a ban on smart luggage with batteries that can’t be removed. The restrictions apply to both checked and carry-on luggage. United is expected to make a similar announcement soon.

The airlines’ concern is that should a lithium ion battery ignite in a cargo hold, the plane’s automatic fire suppression system might not activate until too late. That issue becomes less problematic if something explodes in the cabin – it’d be noticeable right away, most likely – but with ever-increasing baggage fees, there’s the ever-increasing spectre of having to gate-check bags.

Airlines have sought to simplify the issue with a broad approach, but these rules don’t extend to other products with built-in lithium ion batteries, such as phones and laptops.

“It’s completely unfair – it doesn't have any point,” Tomi Pierucci, a co-founder and the chief executive officer of Bluesmart, told Bloomberg, suggesting further that mainstream luggage companies might have had something to do with persuading airlines to enact the ban. He said he is currently in talks with several airlines in the hope of procuring an exemption for Bluesmart luggage, which he said was developed under consultation with the DOT and FAA and sells for as much as US$540 – none of which have a removable battery. Without an exemption, Bluesmart bags can’t fly, period.

Tim Ryan, a marketing strategist for Modobag, a rideable motorized suitcase, argues that the ruling is too general. Modobags have a battery that’s removable only from the inside, a problematic scenario if your bag is already packed to the gills. But it’s a carbon-free titanium battery, which Ryan says is fundamentally different from lithium ion batteries. Modobags are nonetheless affected by the ban.

“It’s hard to have a blanket policy when the smart luggage space is not a blanket category,” he said. When asked if the regulations would influence future products, Ryan said Modobag’s design team “will certainly take regulations into account as they fine-tune the design of these models, including removable batteries.”

Other smart luggage makers are less concerned with the shift; executives of Arlo Skye and Raden both say they saw it coming when hoverboards began exploding a few years ago. “The Samsung exploding phones were [also] an early warning signal,” said Mayur Bhatnagar, an Arlo Skye co-founder and its CEO.

As a result, both companies’ models feature exterior lithium ion batteries that are easily removable and can be used as spare charges. Arlo Skye’s are priced up to US$550 and Raden’s up to US$395.

Raden founder and chief executive officer Joshua Udashkin said he chooses to view the airline regulations from a glass-half-full perspective, a necessary if somewhat uncomfortable step toward bringing smart luggage into the mainstream.

“We’re in this strange world of consumer products where millennials and millennials-plus are reimagining things from razors to mattresses, and luggage was a pretty sleepy industry,” he told Bloomberg. “My investor said the other day, ‘This is a tipping point because this product is popular enough that it’s drawing the attention of the airlines.’ Nothing’s really changed, as far as we’re concerned.”

According to Research & Markets, the smart luggage market in 2016 was valued at roughly US$613 million and spread across fewer than 20 companies, a relative drop in the luggage category bucket. In 2015, the total global luggage industry was valued at US$31.6 billion.

Still, smart luggage “is one of the fastest-growing segments,” Udashkin said. A September report by Global Market Insights predicted that the smart luggage segment could explode to a $2 billion value by 2024 – all of this, of course, was prior to any airline bans.

As for the immediate future, Arlo Skye’s Bhatnagar said he believes that “some potential buyers might wait to make a purchase as the regulations are fine-tuned” and that smart luggage will certainly remain a fraction of the overall market. He still believes the category’s ascent is inevitable, although it may involve some dumbing down.

“Smart luggage players are already making travel pieces like duffels that aren’t ‘smart’ to complement their smart luggage lines,” he said. “You’ll see a convergence with time.”

Phil Young

Phil Young

Qantas

22 Oct 2012

Total posts 260

I just don't understand the value of embedding a battery within luggage. I want my external battery for various devices to be as portable as possible. Even sillier is the motorised luggage, which weighs 9kg without even the battery.

markpk

markpk

Qantas - Qantas Frequent Flyer

29 Nov 2013

Total posts 449

I have no sympathy for the manufacturers.

It's been common knowledge that lith ion batteries and their counterparts are risky, with the airline industry taking a zero-tolerance approach until there is a mountain of evidence that certain types or sizes are safe.

And I'm still not getting the value proposition? Nor what happens when the battery fails after 2-3 years...what then? new luggage?

John Phelan

John Phelan

Qantas - Qantas Frequent Flyer

28 Oct 2011

Total posts 318

Yes, of course - that's exactly the point - they want you to keep buying new luggage!!

Travelwell

Travelwell

Qantas - Qantas Frequent Flyer

26 Oct 2017

Total posts 72

Bluesmart is by far the best thought out carry on bag with an amazing practical design. One does not need to pull the bag out of the overhead lockers to access almost all items items. Problem is I didn't buy one as it weighs over 5 kilos meaning your passport and a small book will tip the airline scales over. Please ditch the battery and I will buy 2.

spinoza

spinoza

01 Feb 2012

Total posts 370

This article seems very pro-smart luggage. As other comments have said, what does so called smart luggage do that is so valuable?

Batteries are risky. Compared to phones and laptops:

  • Manufacturers tend to be new, more like hoverboards than Apple (and even then, as in the case of Samsung, they can still be risky)
  • People can easily live without them
  • They can be thrown around, and physical bumps mean batteries are more likely to explode

It took the FAA 20 years to get comfortable with people keeping their phones on during take off, and that is far less risky than batteries in luggage.

A September report by Global Market Insights predicted that the smart luggage segment could explode to a $2 billion value by 2024 – all of this, of course, was prior to any airline bans.

Very distasteful pun!!

Dredgy

Dredgy

Qantas - Qantas Frequent Flyer

02 Apr 2017

Total posts 115

While the debates about the usefulness could go on and - “people can live without them” is a bad argument as I can also live without a lie flat bed in business class or indeed without a shirt. People like their luxuries. My smart luggage has been a lifesaver on a few occasions.

The article isn’t really about banning the luggage as checked baggage - that’s already against airline terms/law and the suitcase manufacturers state such. The article is about banning it as carry on baggage - where it does not pose a risk more significant than a smartphone (which is already an absurdly low risk, plus smart luggge usually uses less densely packed cells so should in theory be safer than smartphones). It also points out that luggage is banned that doesn’t even use lithium ion batteries and pose no risk. No reported cases of smart luggage

So yes, the rule is a massive overreaction.


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