Clearing the air about traveling with batteries

Image: Airport security with laptop
New air travel restrictions on lithium batteries, which are used in laptops and other devices, took effect on Jan. 1. What do you need to know before you fly?Mike Derer / AP file

You may feel like you need some lithium after trying to read the government restrictions that took effect Jan. 1 involving air travel and lithium batteries.

Take this excerpt, for example from a recent version of a U.S. Department of Transportation Web site:

“The following quantity limits apply to both your spare and installed batteries. The limits are expressed in terms of ‘equivalent lithium content.’ 8 grams of equivalent lithium content is approximately 100 watt-hours. 25 grams is approximately 300 watt-hours.”

Furthermore, “You can also bring up to two spare batteries with an aggregate equivalent lithium content of up to 25 grams, in addition to any batteries that fall below the 8-gram threshold.”

The new rule was prompted by a growing number of incidents involving smoldering or short-circuiting lithium batteries stowed both in the overhead cabin and cargo hold areas of planes.

But after studying the wording of the rule, you may feel your head — not batteries — starting to explode.

Joe Delcambre understands the reaction. He’s a spokesman for the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, part of the Department of Transportation, which issued the ruling.

“We’re attempting to bring it down to more understandable content,” Delcambre said. “We’re working with the battery industry right now to come up with something catchy.”

No limit on most batteries
Except for one category, there’s no limit on the number of batteries you can bring with you when you fly.

It’s where and how those batteries get stowed and stored that is different now.

The only limit is on spares of larger-sized lithium ion batteries — those with a 100- to 300-watt hour capacity, Delcambre said,  those “that you can’t easily fit in your pocket.”

They are most commonly used by camera crews in professional audio and visual equipment, and by some road warriors who use the kind of extended-life batteries that have almost the same footprint as the laptops they’re meant to power.

Spares of such batteries can no longer be placed in checked luggage. But batteries are allowed in checked luggage IF they are installed in the equipment they’re meant to serve.

If the larger-sized lithium ion spares are placed in carry-on bags, passengers are limited to two batteries per person.

“We’ve been getting a lot of feedback about the new rule from camera crews traveling to out-of-the-way places, where they need to carry those batteries with them,” said Delcambre.

“What they need to do now is to think ahead about their travel plans, and to maybe ship ahead the larger batteries that they can’t take with them.

“Or, if they have multiple batteries they need to travel with, and they have other people in their crew traveling with them, they can disperse batteries two per person, and still meet the restrictive limit we’ve placed on those batteries.”

Handy helpers: Ziploc bags and electrical tape
For the rest of us, here are the basic rules about traveling with spare batteries, lithium and otherwise, from the dime-sized lithium metal batteries used in some watches and cameras, to the lithium batteries used in laptops, cell phones and portable entertainment devices, as well as AA to D and 9-volt alkaline and rechargeable batteries:

  • If batteries are placed in the devices they’re meant to run, they’re allowed in both carry-on bags and checked luggage.
  • There is no limit – other than the larger lithium ion battery mentioned above – on the number of spare batteries you can bring in your carry-on bag.  However – and it’s an important however -- spare batteries must be stored and protected from short-circuiting in one of several ways, said Delcambre. Among them: they can be placed in the manufacturer’s original packaging, stored individually in Ziploc bags or put in different areas of a tote bag, separate from loose coins and keys, and protected by placing electrical tape atop each battery’s terminals.
  • Spare lithium ion batteries are no longer allowed in checked luggage. There’s no limit on the number of these batteries that you can bring aboard, as long as they are protected safely and transported in carry-on luggage, Delcambre said.

Immediate access crucial
It all adds up to more stuff for the overtaxed and tired traveler to schlep on board.

But, said Delcambre, “if you’re traveling with these electrical devices or batteries, we want you to travel with them in the overhead, in the cabin compartment, so that if there should be some sort of short-circuiting, there’s a trained safety crew on board the aircraft that can get to the batteries.

“We don’t want batteries in the cargo hold, where there’s no access, and have a smoldering or fire situation, where you can’t get to it.”

A February, 2006 fire aboard a United Parcel Service DC-8 that landed in Philadelphia may have been caused by rechargeable lithium batteries in cargo containers.

Members of the flight crew suffered minor injuries, and the airplane and most of the cargo were destroyed.

In December, 2007,  the National Transportation Safety Board issued a report about the incident, making recommendations about fire suppression aboard cargo planes, and about transporting lithium batteries aboard aircraft, which led to the new restriction.

There were also two, prominent battery-related fires last year. In February, there was a fire in the overhead baggage compartment of a JetBlue flight, and the NTSB said one or more loose batteries may have been the source of the fire.

In March, a battery overheated or ignited on board an American Airlines plane flying from Argentina.

In both cases, airline employees quickly extinguished the fires and safely landed the aircraft.

In the month since the battery restrictions began, there hasn’t been a lot of passenger grumbling, Delcambre said.

“The grumbling is that they don’t truly understand the range of restrictions and the types of batteries we put a limit on,” he said.

“Most people do understand air safety, and that if something happens in the air, you just can’t pull over to the side of the road.”

Public awareness, rather than enforcement, is most important right now, Delcambre said.

“We’ve reached out to a lot of the mega-ticketer organizations, such as Orbitz and Travelocity, asking them to place a reference about (the) battery safety effort on correspondence that’s going out to the traveling public as they get their tickets,” he said.

The agency has also asked the American Airport Executives’ Association “to get airport managers to put up signage so that passengers understand the issue before they actually get to the counter and have to tender their baggage for check-in.”