To Avoid Fires In Flight, Airlines Move To Restrict 'Smart' Luggage

Dec 6, 2017
Originally published on December 6, 2017 7:56 pm
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KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:

Airlines including American, Delta and Alaska have announced restrictions on smart luggage. These are bags and suitcases that have phone chargers built in. Some have scales to get your luggage weight just right. There's even a robot suitcase that follows you around so you don't have to pull it. These features of course require power, often in the form of lithium-ion batteries, and that is what's the problem. Here to tell us more about the new rules on flying with these bags is our own reporter Laurel Wamsley. Hi there.

LAUREL WAMSLEY, BYLINE: Hi, Kelly.

MCEVERS: So what are the airlines saying about smart luggage?

WAMSLEY: Well, they've announced that beginning January 15, customers who have one of these smart bags have to remove the battery. And - well, specifically, they need to be able to remove the battery whether they're checking the bag or carrying it on. So if they're going to check their bag, they have to take out the battery and bring it onboard with them. And then, if the battery does have a battery - if the bag has a bag - battery that can't be removed, they really can't bring it at all.

MCEVERS: Are these rules issued by some of the airlines? Are these the rules that were issued by the airlines? I mean, what are the FAA - what does the FAA say about this?

WAMSLEY: Right. So these announcements are all from these three different airlines so far, and a couple more say they're considering similar measures. The FAA basically says that these rules follow the guidelines that they already have regarding lithium batteries. They already say that you should carry on devices that have these batteries whenever possible instead of checking them. Basically the FAA - these regulations are basically treating these batteries the same way they already treat spare lithium batteries.

MCEVERS: Are these the same batteries that were exploding in Samsung phones last year and in hoverboards the year before that?

WAMSLEY: Yes, they are.

MCEVERS: OK.

WAMSLEY: So these lithium batteries which are found in lots of electronics these days because they're really efficient - they're really small. They pack a lot of power. But the ones in the smart suitcases are bigger than the ones that were in the smartphones that were exploding last year.

These ones - you know, they can power a suitcase behind you. They can power a laptop - all these things. So with that bigger size, there's kind of more danger. And also, again, because they're in these suitcases, there are just more of them in the luggage hold. So lithium is just this really reactive material. So if there's any manufacturing errors or anything like that in the devices, they can ignite and cause what's called thermal runaway leading to fire or explosions.

MCEVERS: OK, so if they pose a fire hazard, won't they be just as dangerous in a carry-on as they would be in checked luggage?

WAMSLEY: Yeah, great question. So I asked a guy at American Airlines about this, and the spokesman told me that the reason why you're still allowed to have these onboard in the cabin is that in the cabin, people can fight the fire if one starts. If a fire breaks out in the cargo hold, it's really hard to fight it because there's no one down there. There's just all these suitcases. But if one breaks out onboard, you can just kind of, you know, dunk the battery in water and things like that and put it out.

MCEVERS: So passengers and crew will be fighting a fire?

WAMSLEY: Yes, and apparently that's the plan.

MCEVERS: American Airlines said it made its announcement ahead of the holidays so people would know about it as they're buying gifts. But what about people who already own one of these suitcases?

WAMSLEY: Right. So again, this only affects bags that don't have removable batteries. So if you have one of the bags and the battery is removable, you're fine. You just have to take it out if you're checking it. But if you have one where the battery isn't removable, you should probably pack a different bag. And again, other airlines are looking at similar measures, so you should probably check with your airline before you pack your bag.

MCEVERS: NPR's Laurel Wamsley explaining new regulations announced by some airlines on rules for smart luggage. Thank you very much.

WAMSLEY: You're welcome.

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