Airlines Not Required to Carry Mobility Scooters Powered by Lithium Ion Batteries

After reports of an alleged denied boarding incident on Alaska Airlines last month, I’ve been doing a lot of research on the rules and regulations for flying with mobility scooters powered by lithium ion batteries. Frankly it’s new territory for me, basically because it’s a new technology.

But we must evolve with the times.

After a few weeks of consulting the experts at the Department of Transportation (DOT), the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) and Alaska Airlines, the bottom line is revealed in this blog’s headline — airlines are not required to carry mobility scooters powered by lithium ion batteries. So Alaska Airlines was perfectly within the limits of the law for the denied passage.

So here are the basics of what the law has to say, and how it’s interpreted by the DOT, the PHMSA and Alaska Airlines’ Dangerous Goods Manager.

According to the PHMSA, Lithium batteries are considered hazardous goods in transportation because they present both chemical and electrical hazards. Additionally, the high energy density of lithium batteries increases the consequences of a short circuit or fire, therefore posing a greater risk in transportation. So of course, their carriage is strictly regulated.

That said there is a specific exception in the Code of Federal Regulations (CFR) that allows passengers to carry certain lithium ion batteries in the passenger cabin.

More specifically this exception allows for consumer-sized lithium ion batteries with under 8 grams of aggregate equivalent lithium content, when installed in equipment for personal use. This covers most cell phone, PDA, camera, camcorder, and standard laptop computer batteries.

This exception also covers larger consumer-sized lithium ion batteries with under 25 grams of aggregate equivalent lithium content, when installed in equipment and carried by passengers or crew for personal use. This includes the larger extended life laptop batteries.

Although some folks also hold that this exception applies to mobility scooters with lithium ion batteries with aggregate equivalent lithium content of under 25 grams of lithium, the DOT, PHMSA and airline hazmat specialists disagree. It does not.

Why?

Because the regulations specifically state that the excepted lithium ion batteries have to be “carried by passengers or crew members for personal use” —  meaning in flight use. Since items such as mobility scooters cannot be used in-flight, they are not covered under the exception.

The DOT refers to this as the “exception to the exception”.

Of course there are also specific exceptions for larger batteries installed in mobility aids. These are contained in 49 CFR 175.10(a) (16) (for medical devices with spillable batteries) and 49 CFR 175.10(a) (15) (for medical devices with non spillable batteries).

It should be noted these exceptions only apply to nonspillable or spillable battery powered mobility devices. There are no exceptions for mobility devices powered by batteries of different chemistries, such as lithium.

Another exception to the exception.

To be honest, this was a bit of an eye-opener to me, hence the reason for posting the regulations — or rather the DOT/PHMSA interpretations of them — here. So, no matter how much your lithium ion battery weighs, if it’s for use in a mobility scooter, the airlines can refuse to accept it.

Does that mean that they are prohibited on all airlines? No, in fact many people have successfully traveled with them. But you do need to call the airline before you make your reservation to find out if they will accept them. If not, you’ll just have to take your business elsewhere.

I’m preparing a more detailed article on the subject, along with specific airline rules, and consumer alternatives. Look for it soon in the new Know Before you Go Section of Emerging Horizons, which will be available exclusively to Emerging Horizons subscribers. Until then, be sure and ask a lot of questions before you book your trip. Otherwise you may end up stranded at the gate.