Airline Passengers Can Bring Batteries Aboard, After All

A Transportation Department administrator clarifies the Jan. 1 regulation regarding loose lithium batteries, developed to lessen the risk of airplane fires.

Elena Malykhina, Technology Journalist

January 17, 2008

4 Min Read

On Jan. 1, the U.S. Transportation Department's Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration passed a regulation regarding loose lithium batteries in luggage on airplanes, causing a lot of confusion among travelers. InformationWeek recently interviewed Bob Richard, the administration's deputy assistant administrator, who set the record straight on what's allowed and what isn't.

The new regulation went into effect this month in order to lessen the risk of short-circuit fires on airplanes caused by certain types of batteries. When metals like keys, coins, and other batteries come in contact with both terminals of another battery, they can create a path for electricity and cause a spark, leading to a fire, according to the Hazardous Materials Safety Administration.

The administration is treating lithium batteries as hazardous materials since they're known for overheating and catching fire in some conditions. Tests conducted by the Federal Aviation Administration show that aircraft cargo fire suppression systems on airplanes are incapable of containing such fires.

"We've subjected batteries to really rigorous tests both internationally and locally. The test simulated worst-case conditions. But it's not just what-if scenarios we're dealing with. We're reacting to real-life situations where we've already had several incidents," said Richard, who is in charge of developing hazardous materials safety regulations.

One such incident, he said, happened on a JetBlue flight departing from New York with a film crew on board. The crew had a bag full of unprotected lithium batteries rubbing against each other in a carrying case. One of the batteries short circuited and caused other batteries to catch on fire.

"There was a pretty violent fire in an overhead compartment of the aircraft and luckily the flight crew was able to extinguish it, but it wasn't easy since these lithium battery fires are not very easy to put out," said Richard.

Another incident took place in February 2006 when a cargo plane operated by United Parcel Service became engulfed in flames and was significantly damaged. Lithium ion batteries are suspected as the cause of the fire.

InformationWeek originally reported that as part of the regulation, only two spare rechargeable lithium batteries per passenger would be allowed on airplanes in carry-on bags. Richard said that is not the case. To clear up confusion, travelers should know that they can carry most consumer batteries and battery-powered devices in their carry-on baggage. These include dry cell alkaline batteries, including AA, AAA, C, D, and 9-volt; dry cell rechargeable batteries, including nickel metal hydride and nickel cadmium; lithium ion batteries, including rechargeable lithium, lithium polymer, and LIPO -- basically batteries that power consumer electronics like cell phones, PDAs, cameras, and laptops; and lithium metal batteries, including non-rechargeable lithium and primary lithium.

The regulation states that all batteries must be kept in their original packaging, a case, or a separate pouch such as a plastic bag to prevent short circuits.

There is no limit to how many spares of dry cell batteries a passenger can bring with them. Batteries that are already installed in electronic devices can be brought in carry-on baggage or checked in, and there is no limit on the number of devices either.

But there is a weight and power limit for lithium ion and lithium metal batteries. Lithium ion batteries cannot exceed 8 grams of equivalent lithium content or 100 watt hours per battery. Passengers can bring only two larger lithium ion batteries -- up to 25 grams per battery-- in their carry-on bags. These include extended-life batteries for laptops.

When it comes to lithium metal batteries, passengers are allowed up to 2 grams of lithium content per battery in their carry-on.

So to sum up, dry cell batteries are allowed in carry-on baggage and in checked baggage. Lithium ion and lithium metal batteries are only allowed in carry-on baggage and cannot be checked in unless they're inside devices. Passengers are allowed to bring only two larger lithium ion batteries, such as those used in film equipment. All batteries must be stored in some kind of a case.

Passengers can find more safety tips at the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration's Safe Travel Web site.

It's still unclear, however, how rigorously the regulation will be carried out at airports. The U.S. Transportation Security Administration, at least at present time, isn't applying the same rules to carry-on lithium batteries as they do to liquids, gels, and aerosols. If during a bag check a security officer discovers a loose lithium battery, they will hand it over to the airlines to deal with, said a TSA spokeswoman.

Why take a chance and have another headache to deal with? Just don't forget to grab an extra Ziploc or two when traveling next time.

About the Author(s)

Elena Malykhina

Technology Journalist

Elena Malykhina began her career at The Wall Street Journal, and her writing has appeared in various news media outlets, including Scientific American, Newsday, and the Associated Press. For several years, she was the online editor at Brandweek and later Adweek, where she followed the world of advertising. Having earned the nickname of "gadget girl," she is excited to be writing about technology again for InformationWeek, where she worked in the past as an associate editor covering the mobile and wireless space. She now writes about the federal government and NASA’s space missions on occasion.

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