Safety at all costs

Mike Elgan says,

  The powers that be at the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Administration (PHSMA) have determined that batteries are a potential fire risk. As a result, you will no longer be allowed to bring spare batteries in your checked luggage.

  Batteries actually installed inside devices are OK, and most spare batteries in your carry-on are fine, too. But carry-on batteries are now governed by a complicated new set of rules.

  You can carry batteries with 8 grams of lithium or less in them in your carry on bags. They now, however, must be carried now in plastic bags. Cell phone, PDA and other gadget batteries, plus most laptop batteries, contain less than 8 grams of lithium.

I carry lots of batteries with me. Spare laptop batteries, rechargeables, and the usual disposable kind included. And I haven’t run across any trouble so far. But I haven’t flown since January 1, when Mike published this.

Gordon Haff unpacks the rules a bit more, saying,

 

  The “two-battery limit” applies only to lithium ion batteries with more than “8 grams of equivalent lithium content, (which) is approximately 100 watt-hours.” The Reader’s Digest version is that this limit roughly corresponds to the largest notebook batteries.

  In other words, this limit shouldn’t much affect most travelers because there’s no limit on typical camera, cell phone, toy, and notebook batteries. So what is affected? Things like external notebook and professional videographer batteries. (I suspect that independent videographers will be one of the groups this new rule could inconvenience.)

  One issue is that implementing the rule in the field is basically impossible, unless the screeners are just given some rule of thumb like “no limit on notebook batteries or anything smaller.”

  Finally, I think it’s worth noting that–much fevered commentary aside–this is not some new inane security rule. It’s a response to lithium batteries being suspected as the cause in at least one cargo plane fire.

In practice, how will the TSA people know what the right size battery is? I guess we’ll see.

Anybody experience problems with this yet?

As it happens I don’t have any big spare laptop batteries with me, this time. But I do have a pile of little rechargeable ones. We’ll see how they do on Friday at LAX.

3 comments

  1. jr’s avatar

    This is interesting because now TSA is deciding what is safe to fly with rather than the Transportation Safety Board. There is rules in place for hazardous materials since I would guess the late 1970
    ‘s My spare powerbook battery is 65 watt-hours and was one of the ones apple sent as replacements for the suspect ones. I moved it from checked to carry on but will not be testing the system until tomorrow morning.

  2. rjh’s avatar

    JR: The PHSMA is not part of the TSA, and the regulations are promulgated in coordination with the NTSB. See http://hazmat.dot.gov/regs/ntsb/av/ntsb_air.htm for details.

    The problem is twofold. First, the TSA has used their typical “Obey or I’ll thump you” approach. The schoolyard bully is rarely persuasive, even if they are obeyed. So people already have the wrong attitude, and it shows in the incoherent and ignorant raving about this regulation. Second, people are genuinely ignorant about the real fire hazards, and are likely to be unable to grasp what is safe or unsafe. Having the TSA bullies making this decision won’t help understanding, but seems to be the path of least resistance. Can you imagine the bureaucratic firestorm that would result if NTSB were to publicly state that TSA inspectors are too stupid to determine which batteries are small enough to be safe?

    This is more than a “suspected” cause of fire. It is a confirmed cause of at least three different aircraft fires. In each case the battery caught fire and is the known cause of the fire. Fighting fires on aircraft is very difficult, so the long established practice is to keep significant fire hazards off the airplane.

    Doc, the safety recommendation for loose batteries is that each battery be put into an individual plastic bag or case. This protects against accidental short circuits, and those are the primary cause of fires for the small loose battery.

  3. rjh’s avatar

    I found a better link to the actual regulation, listing the background, various known fires, experiments performed, etc. It is at http://hazmat.dot.gov/regs/rules/final/72fr/72fr-44929.htm

    The actual regulation for passenger carryon is at the very bottom, as an exception to the general regulations.

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