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Zooming past you at an airport soon: Rideable suitcases

Published: Aug 12, 2016 3:10 p.m. ET

Modobag has racked up hundreds of advance orders, but some airports say they won’t allow the devices

An image from Modobag shows the company’s rideable suitcases, which it plans to begin selling to the general public in 2017.

JeremyC. Owens

Technology Editor

Next time you’re trudging through an airport dragging a suitcase, just imagine you could pull some handlebars out of that bag, sit on it and zoom to your gate at 5 miles an hour.

That is the plan for Modobag, a Chicago startup that has spent two years developing a $1,500 rideable suitcase, even though some airports say they won’t be allowed. Three weeks into an Indiegogo online campaign that offers the bags at a discounted price of $995, the company has found nearly 300 backers who have committed more than $280,000, nearly six times Modobag’s original goal.

The Modobag — which co-founder Kevin O’Donnell and his brother, Brian, demonstrated at MarketWatch’s San Francisco bureau on Thursday — has a small, replaceable motor, lithium ion battery and telescoping handlebars with a throttle and brake. Designed with the help of co-founder Boyd Bruner, a former competitive motorcycle racer, the bag has speed modes designed for indoors and outside, where the bag can reach up to 8 mph.

The components needed for riding take up about 15% of the space, the O’Donnells said, leaving 85% of the normal space of a carry-on bag. Kevin O’Donnell pointed out that the bag is the proper size for a carry-on, and that the battery is consistent with restrictions established by the Transportation Security Agency and Federal Aviation Administration. An empty Modobag weighs 19 pounds, about half the allowable carry-on weight for most major airlines.

The one concern could be airports, which make their own rules about what devices can be used in their facilities. Many established rules specifically aimed at hoverboards, a popular holiday gift last year that were also banned by airlines after a series of fires were publicized.

MarketWatch contacted the 10 busiest U.S. airports, according to the FAA’s 2016 rankings, to ask if they had a policy against devices like the Modobag. Of the eight that responded definitively within 24 hours, four — in Atlanta, Denver, New York (John F. Kennedy) and San Francisco — said such a device would be against their rules. For example, the busiest U.S. airport, Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson, said the device would be included in a ban established in March for “personal transportation devices,” which was aimed at hoverboards.

Four other large airports — in Charlotte, Dallas, Las Vegas and Los Angeles — did not have a ban or were not sure these types of devices would be restricted, suggesting they would approach their use independent of other wheeled, motorized devices.

“We do not currently have a policy regarding rideable suitcases, as there hasn’t been a need to address them,” said Christine Crews, a spokeswoman for McCarran International Airport in Las Vegas. “However, we do not allow hoverboards to be used on airport property.”

Kevin O’Donnell suggested that people with disabilities would certainly be allowed to use the Modobag in airports, and hopes that the devices prove so popular that airports allow them. He also hopes to get airlines on his side, to help their customers avoid the annoyances airports can present.

“We’re a problem-solver for the airlines,” O’Donnell said. “We take care of the horrible experience from the curb to their door, where they get to take care of you.”

He also pointed out that the bags include tracking ability through a smartphone app, which would help airlines with a longstanding problem, lost baggage. Users also will have their own charging station on the bag, with USB ports for other devices.

Kevin O’Donnell said Modobag, which has 10 full-time employees and more than a dozen workers on contract, plans its first production run of the bags later this year, which will prepare the company to start production for Indiegogo backers and potential retail sales in January.