Luggage being loaded onto a commercial airplane
Credit: Spaces Images/Getty Images

Maybe scratch “smart baggage” off your Christmas list — unless you've checked if it will be approved in the new year.

Equipping luggage with built-in, highly flammable, lithium-ion batteries was never a good idea, but that didn’t stop some manufacturers from trying. So-called smart baggage has found a market niche among techie travelers by offering features like GPS tracking, enough smartphone re-charging power to get you to your destination and beyond, even a dubious method of transport around the terminal.

But the heydays of electronic luggage are at an end, at least for smart bags with built-in Lithium-Ion batteries.

The industry had resolved to ban smart bags by 2019, but because the risks of uncontrollable fire in the aircraft hold — out of sight of cabin crew and beyond their reach to extinguish it — are causing great concern, American Airlines decided to ban the bags last week, soon followed by Delta and Alaska.

On Wednesday, during a special cargo session at the International Air Transport Association (IATA) headquarters in Geneva, the association confirmed that it will take steps to recommend a global ban of smart bags starting on Jan. 15, 2018. A formal legal ban, by the U.N. International Civil Aeronautics Organization (ICAO), will follow at the beginning of 2019.

All airlines will have to comply with ICAO’s ban, but many airlines around the world will likely go ahead and implement a ban after the IATA notice in January. The decision to ban smart bags has actually been in the works for a while, with airlines and regulators expressing concern over lithium-ion batteries packed in luggage even before any smart-bag Kickstarter campaigns took off.

While there aren’t any specific regulations governing the design and manufacturing of luggage, concern has reached a point where ICAO, working with aviation regulators, airlines, and IATA, felt that they had to take action. The risks are very real. If damaged, these batteries can enter a state called “thermal runaway,” generating enough heat to catch fire that runs hot enough to burn through the fire-proof cargo containers on planes. If those fires and the battery fumes make contact with commonly packed items, like a can of hairspray or deodorant spray, they can set off an explosion powerful enough to do irrevocable damage to an aircraft.

These were the findings of the Federal Aviation Administration after extensive testing, which prompted a reversal of the security-based requirements to check laptops and large electronics on some flights earlier this year, and instead resulted in a ban on checking large electronics in luggage.

The exception to the new smart luggage ban is any luggage which is equipped with an easily removable battery. That is only if the battery can be separated from the bag at any point that the airline requires it. If the battery is permanently attached to the luggage, or if it cannot easily be taken out, then it’s a no-go, even if you don’t plan to check it.

“The concern that airlines have is that power banks [like those installed on smart bags] have features prominently in fire incidents onboard,” said IATA’s David Brennan, who specializes in policies on the carriage of dangerous goods by air. “It’s something that airlines have been talking about for some time.”

The second reason airlines are opting for an outright ban is that on a crowded flight, when bin space runs out, passengers may have to check bags. Airlines don’t want to have to refuse to carry customer luggage at the gate. To avoid problems, airlines ask passengers to leave problematic baggage at home.

“What you don’t want is an argument with the passenger. Better to tell passengers up front in advance,” Brennan said.

He also said the ban will not extend to otherwise ordinary luggage with smart features — like electronic bag tags — because the batteries that power those are very small.

The changes in policy — first the laptop ban and now the smart baggage ban — might be confusing to travelers, but the laptop ban was a unilateral decision taken by the U.S. and U.K. governments based on intelligence of threats to flights, without first consulting airlines. Those policies were later reversed and replaced with new security procedures, once all parties shared information. The smart baggage ban is unlikely to be reversed because the risks are well known. The policy is drafted by airlines and regulators based on ongoing flight-safety concerns.

So what do you do if you already have a smart bag?

If you already own smart baggage check to see if the battery is easily removable. If the battery requires hardware to remove it, or can’t quickly be taken out of the bag, then your safest bet is to use that bag for road trips, or on a cruise. Use a different bag when flying.