Lufthansa, a German airline, recently caused confusion after telling passengers that they could not use trackers like Apple AirTags in checked baggage due to international guidelines on personal electronic devices. Apple dismissed that interpretation on Tuesday, saying its trackers are compliant with all regulations.
It doesn’t appear that other airlines are requiring passengers to turn off the trackers, which have become popular as a method of locating lost luggage. Lufthansa found itself in the thick of things when reports surfaced in the German news media that the devices were banned.
Although Lufthansa said it had no intention of banning the devices it deemed safe, the airline appears to have fallen into chaos after reading obscure international guidelines and regulations, with no clear consensus on what is and isn’t allowed in Europe.
Regulators in the United States have said the trackers, which use Bluetooth technology and do not interfere with aircraft communication devices, are allowed in carry-on or checked baggage. A variety of other companies sell similar trackers, including Tile, which is popular with Android phone users.
Lufthansa said on Twitter on Sunday that trackers in checked baggage must be disabled on its flights, citing the International Civil Aviation Organization’s guidelines on dangerous goods and the trackers’ “transmission function”. Turning off the trackers renders them unusable.
The airline has not issued a specific policy banning baggage trackers. Rather, it says that it is at the mercy of the rules. The airline announced on Tuesday that it was “in close contact with the respective institutions in order to find a solution as soon as possible”. It also stated that its own review saw no danger in their use.
“The Lufthansa Group has carried out its own risk assessment with the result that tracking devices with very low battery and transmission power in checked baggage do not pose a security risk,” said Lufthansa spokesman Martin Leutke. “We have never banned such devices. It is up to authorities to amend regulations that currently restrict the use of these devices for passengers in checked baggage.”
In its statement, Apple said AirTags “comply with international airline security regulations for carry-on and checked baggage.”
The devices use Bluetooth Low Energy, the same technology commonly used by in-flight wireless headphones. They are tracked by sharing their last location with nearby Apple devices via a secure signal.
Apple said the international aviation authority doesn’t have specific standards for cargo-tracking devices, and its definition of personal consumer electronics devices focuses on larger devices, including phones, cameras and laptops. These tend to have larger lithium batteries.
According to Apple, AirTags use CR2032 button cell batteries. These small lithium batteries are commonly used in watches and key fobs. Apple said these batteries have been approved for all bags by the Federal Aviation Administration, the European Union Aviation Safety Agency and the International Air Transport Association, an airline trade group.
A 2017 FAA recommendation allows devices to use low-power wireless communications such as Bluetooth on board aircraft in the United States. In a statement Monday, the Transportation Security Administration confirmed Apple’s view that “tracking devices are permitted in both carry-on and checked baggage.”
On Tuesday, the European Aviation Safety Agency said its regulation “does not, per se, ban or allow devices like the Apple AirTags.” But the agency appeared to return the matter to Lufthansa, saying: “It is the responsibility of operators to prohibit the use of any device that could affect flight safety or the aircraft’s systems.”
The International Civil Aviation Organization Dangerous Goods Specification states that “Batteries contained in portable electronic devices should be carried as carry-on baggage” but that when checked, “the devices must be completely turned off (not while asleep – or sleep mode). .” It wasn’t immediately clear how the guidelines would address the issue of Bluetooth Low Energy transmissions.
But the organization also said in a statement that it is not a regulator and “plays no oversight role” over airlines. Rather, their guidelines on what passengers can and cannot do are seeping through, and similar advice from the international trade group to the regulators and airlines that set the guidelines.