When influencer Simon Hooper (@father_of_daughters) boarded an easyJet flight to Copenhagen earlier this week for an anniversary trip, his plans were foiled by his ‘smart’ suitcase with its built-in lithium battery pack, in an incident that prompted much Insta-story hand-wringing.
Hooper had checked his case into the hold, where smart suitcases are banned unless their batteries have been removed and carried onto the plane separately. He isn’t the only high-profile person to be caught out by the rule in recent months: podcaster Pandora Sykes was denied boarding in August for the same reason. So what’s the deal with checking in smart luggage and lithium batteries in general?
What is ‘smart luggage’?
Any baggage that includes a battery or bank to power either itself or an external device can be called ‘smart’. In recent times, these cases have become popular thanks to their handy capabilities (such as allowing users to charge devices and weigh their own baggage digitally). However, most are powered by built-in lithium battery packs which have been banned from the hold since 2018 due to Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) guidance.
Most airlines, including easyJet, allow you to disconnect your smart luggage, check it in and then carry the removable battery pack onboard or alternatively take disconnected smart luggage into the cabin. Ryanair stipulates that even if smart luggage is stored in overhead cabins, the battery ‘must stay with you at all times’. Airlines also advise that these batteries should be individually wrapped with their terminals protected, in the original packaging if possible.
What’s the deal with lithium batteries?
After a flurry of onboard fires, the International Air Transport Association (IATA) classified these batteries as ‘dangerous goods’ back in 2018 and spare batteries and power banks were subsequently banned from the hold. A high-quality, fully functioning lithium battery shouldn’t overheat, but substandard manufacturing and damaged products increase the risk. In the US alone, there have been 373 fires caused by these batteries on passenger aircraft since 2006 and in 2016 Samsung ceased production of the Galaxy Note 7 Smartphone after a string of fires caused by faulty batteries.
What else containing lithium batteries is banned from the hold?
“The simplest rule of thumb is that if it charges, it probably shouldn’t be getting checked,” says Gilbert Ott of frequent flyer site godsavethepoints.com. IATA regulations state that “articles containing lithium metal or lithium ion cells or batteries, the primary purpose of which is to provide power to another device, e.g. power banks, and spare lithium batteries are permitted in carry-on baggage only”.
Items that have lithium batteries but not charging capabilities (such as laptops or headphones) are allowed in the hold as they rarely catch fire, though it’s a probably good idea to take them as carry-on anyway.
Why can I take these things on board then?
Though there’s still a risk that they might malfunction, it’s safer to have power banks and battery packs within reach of the cabin crew who can monitor and contain any fires. Fires in the hold are detected through smoke or temperature alarms, which send a warning to the pilot in the cockpit within one minute (or five for older planes). Once the pilot is alerted, he or she can activate an automatic fire suppression system that uses extinguishing agents to put out the flames. The hold is also insulated with flame-resistant panels to stop the fire getting into the cabin.
However, a 2021 report by Airbus raised questions about the ability of some systems to put out lithium fires stating “Federal Aviation Administration tests show that even a small number of overheating batteries emit gases that can cause explosions and fires that cannot be prevented by traditional fire suppression systems.” In the cabin, crew have extinguishers more suited to lithium fires at their disposal.
In 2017, when a JetBlue flight from New York to San Francisco was forced to make an emergency landing in Michigan due to an overheating e-cigarette lighter, cabin crew put the backpack containing it in a metal bin and stored it in the loo until the plane could land safely. These days, many flights carry battery fire containment bags.
What if I accidentally forget the rules?
You probably won’t. Despite Hooper and Sykes’s protests of ignorance, airlines remind passengers several times about what they can put in the hold, beginning when they book. A spokesperson for easyJet said: “In line with CAA guidance on the carriage of lithium batteries, we require any items, including bags containing lithium batteries, to be disconnected before we can accept them onboard. Customers are advised of this when booking and when checking in online when they’re asked to review a list of items that have restrictions associated with their carriage (including lithium batteries) and confirm that they have read and understood this and the terms and conditions of carriage before proceeding to check in. This happens again at the airport bag drop.”
easyJet, British Airways, Ryanair and many other airlines also publish specific guidance about smart luggage online, while the CAA states that information about dangerous goods must be communicated to passengers at check-in and baggage drop – power banks and spare batteries are clearly listed as ‘hand luggage only’ on the information posters displayed at the airport. It might be that the in-built nature of smart luggage batteries is to blame for the disconnect.
Will I be denied boarding if I put a smart suitcase in the hold with its battery attached?
Because of the short time between boarding and take-off, as well as security risks and the discrepancy between what’s allowed in hold and cabin baggage, it’s often necessary to remove the bag and the passenger from a flight rather than allow them to take the battery pack out of their case and then bring it into the cabin. “It’s the airline’s prerogative,” says Ott.
When asked to comment on Hooper’s specific circumstances, easyJet said: “As Mr Hooper had checked his bag into the hold with the battery attached, unfortunately the bag was removed and couldn’t be accepted back on board in line with airport security procedures. While we understand the disappointment this will have caused, safety is always our highest priority.”