Duty-free theft leads to smart cart innovation


After a long flight home from Newark to Frankfurt, a flight attendant sat down with me to go over the current standard for receiving and locking a duty-free cart. While she says it only takes about five to seven minutes to open a cart if everything goes smoothly and three minutes to lock it again at the end of a flight, it looks exhausting. There are forms to fill out, numbers to copy down perfectly – relics of a bygone era. One wonders how we’ve come so far into a modern age without a better way of guarding against theft.

The flight attendant I spoke with estimates that a duty-free cart could hold about $27,666 worth of merchandise depending on the flight, and FlightWeight – a start-up company that specializes in light security solutions for aviation – estimates that about $50.4 million is lost through stock theft throughout the airline industry every year.

FlightWeight’s solution to this problem is the SmartCart, a reinvention of the traditional duty-free cart that uses a keycard to lock and unlock the door which debuted at Hamburg’s Aircraft Interiors Expo. This is meant to prevent unauthorized access to carts, which can happen when a seal isn’t properly attached or forgotten. If theft occurs, it can be hard for an airline to apportion blame, given the sheer number of people onboard.

The SmartCart means to save airlines money not just by protecting wares from thieves, but also by reducing fuel costs. Constructed of a linen-derivative that also features Kevlar with a honeycomb interior, a SmartCart is about 5 kilos lighter than a traditional cart, which FlightWeight estimates will save airlines 150 tonnes of fuel per year.

While the reduced fuel expenditures and the ease of access for authorized personnel is certainly attractive, airlines might face backlash from unions, who could see the SmartCart’s recording of every movement as a form of onboard surveillance. Even if the airlines can’t see which keycard a flight attendant has been issued, the information must exist in FlightWeight’s records, and is therefore theoretically available to the airlines. In a way, crews must be asked to put more trust in management, while the management’s surveillance suggests less trust in crews.

FlightWeight claims that the SmartCart is meant to protect crews. After all, if a SmartCart records its door being opened half an hour after the crew has left, then it’s fairly obvious that the crew could not have committed any theft.

The flight attendant seemed positive about the SmartCart’s potential. “This could be easier,” she said. Even if there are unforeseen issues that will need to be ironed out, FlightWeight’s SmartCart could reshape the landscape of onboard shopping and reduce the crew’s stress, thereby improving the passenger experience.