How ‘smart’ luggage makers are reacting to impending airline ban

Mobile suitcase Modobag features an electric motor, powered by lithium batteries. Earlier this month, American, Alaska, and Delta Airlines announced a ban on smart luggage with batteries that can’t be removed. — Handout via AFP
Mobile suitcase Modobag features an electric motor, powered by lithium batteries. Earlier this month, American, Alaska, and Delta Airlines announced a ban on smart luggage with batteries that can’t be removed. — Handout via AFP

NEW YORK, Dec 19 — 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 motorised wheels — have disrupted the market. Airlines are now taking note with arched brows: Earlier this month, American, Alaska, and Delta Airlines announced a ban on smart luggage with batteries that can’t be removed. The restrictions, which take effect January 15, 2018, apply to both checked and carry-on luggage. United and Southwest are expected to make similar announcements 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 (RM2,200) — 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 motorised 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 US$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.” — Bloomberg

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