‘Smart’ luggage makers react to impending airline ban

Rachel Tepper Paley
Bloomberg News

Considering 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 last 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, American, Alaska, and Delta Airlines announced a ban on smart luggage with batteries that can’t be removed. The restrictions, which take effect Jan. 15, 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 specter 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, like phones and laptops.

“It’s completely unfair – it doesn’t have any point,” Tomi Pierucci, the co-founder and CEO of Bluesmart, told Bloomberg, suggesting further that mainstream luggage companies might have had something to do with convincing 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 $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 ride-able 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.

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 $550 and Raden’s up to $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, in 2016 the smart luggage market was valued at roughly $613 million and spread across fewer than just 20 companies. In 2015, the total global luggage industry was valued at $31.6 billion. That said, smart luggage “is one of the fastest growing segments,” Udashkin said.

As for the immediate future, Arlo Skye’s Bhatnagar said he believes “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.

“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.”