Apple’s AirTag tracking devices have become a popular way of locating lost luggage amidst massive travel disruption, but the practice has raised red flags at Air New Zealand – which has reportedly banned the devices amidst safety concerns about their lithium batteries.

The airline has warned travellers that trackers “may not be accepted by us” if they cannot be physically turned off, advising in its formal baggage rules that “only battery powered baggage trackers that can be turned off i.e. are not in sleep mode, will be accepted in checked baggage.”

Air NZ’s concerns come in the wake of a firestorm created by German national carrier Lufthansa, which tweeted last month that the devices would be banned from checked bags “as they are classified as dangerous and need to be turned off”.

The decision, which the carrier blamed on regulations on the transport of lithium batteries set by the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), created an online furore as frustrated travellers vented about the devices’ demonstrated value in locating bags that have been going missing at record pace.

Fully 8.7 suitcases per 1,000 international passengers did not arrive in time, according to figures that flagged a 24 per cent increase in the volume of lost luggage this year compared with last year.

AirTags are small Bluetooth beacons that can be added to keychains or stashed inside a bag, enabling their owners to locate lost items with pinpoint accuracy.

The devices can be detected by any nearby iPhone, which anonymously transmits its location to the registered owner from anywhere in the world.

When they were launched last year, AirTags raised eyebrows amidst child safety advocates and those concerned they could be used for surveillance in domestic abuse and stalking situations, although they are designed with built-in features to prevent abuse.

Yet the airlines’ concerns stem from a different issue entirely: their use of batteries based on lithium, which have been shown to be susceptible to explosion in extreme cases if they are short-circuited, overheated, or overcharged.

To ensure safety, airlines have long maintained rules about which lithium batteries passengers can carry, and in which bags – prompting bans on devices like hoverboards and other devices that use batteries with more than 160 watt-hours (Wh) of capacity.

Spare batteries and power banks are also regulated, with Air New Zealand requiring passengers to carry up to 20 spare batteries in carry-on bags, but to avoid packing them with metal objects like coins and keys; exposed terminals should also be covered with tape during transit.

Charging cases for Apple AirPods and other wireless Bluetooth headphones are included in this rule, the airline notes, “as their only function is to charge the [headphones] inside”.

Walking back the ban?

The disposable CR2032 batteries that power AirTags, however, supply just 3V of power and store up to 0.240 Ah.

This is equivalent to just 0.72 Wh – just a fraction as much power as the rechargeable lithium-ion cells used to power smartphones, drones, cameras, laptops, power tools, and other portable electronics.

When pressed about its claims that the AirTags are “dangerous”, Lufthansa ultimately said that a risk assessment of tracking devices “with very low battery and transmission power in checked luggage do not pose a safety risk.”

Lufthansa walked back its ban within a few days, with the US Federal Aviation Authority (FAA) explicitly clearing the devices for use in checked luggage.

Trackers using batteries with 0.3g of lithium or less are OK to use in checked baggage, the FAA ruled, noting that AirTags have just 0.1g of lithium and “meet this threshold [but] other luggage tracking devices may not”.

Air NZ is said to still be enforcing its ban on an honour system basis – and will reportedly re-evaluate the policy next year amidst its claims that ICAO regulations require devices with lithium batteries to be switched off during transit.

Reports have suggested that the devices will continue to be allowed on domestic Australian flights.