US Airlines Prohibited From Transporting Lithium-Ion Powered Scooters

In an ongoing effort to clarify the regulations regarding the transport of lithium-ion battery powered scooters, the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) recently released their interpretation of the law. It should be noted that the PHMSA has total jurisdiction over this issue, as it’s considered a safety issue. In other words, their interpretation is the law of the land.

As you may recall, this issue came to light when a passenger was denied boarding on an Alaska Airlines flight with her lithium-ion battery powered Travel Scoot. An Alaska Airlines Hazardous Materials Specialist subsequently explained that under the law, they are not required to transport lithium-ion battery powered mobility devices. Although some consumer groups claimed there was an exception for all mobility devices, Alaska Airlines held that this exception only applies to spillable and non-spillable battery powered devices, not to lithium-ion powered devices. In other words lithium-ion battery powered devices are the exception to the exception.

In a letter to United Airlines dated April 1, 2010, the PHMSA agreed with this interpretation. The letter quoted from the Hazardous Materials Regulations (HMR), “The provisions that except wheelchairs and other battery-powered mobility aids with spillable and non-spillable batteries are not applicable to lithium-ion battery powered wheelchairs or other lithium-ion powered mobility aids, because for purposes of the HMR, a lithium-ion battery is not regulated in the same manner as a spillable or non-spillable battery.” In layman’s language, lithium-ion batteries are not considered non-spillable batteries, as some consumer advocates previously claimed.

Furthermore, the PHMSA agreed with Alaska Airlines interpretation of the regulations, and held that the airlines are not required to accept lithium-ion powered mobility devices. They also went once step further.

According to the PHMSA, the only way a lithium-ion battery powered mobility device can be transported on US airlines is if it is shipped as a battery powered vehicle. And in order to do this you have to conform to a number of shipping, packing and paperwork regulations. And it’s not something a private party can even do these days. In order to do this you have to work with a freight company. In the end, it’s a complex and somewhat expensive process. Additionally, it’s not something you can do at the gate, so you will have to plan this several days ahead, and that means being without your mobility device in the interim. In short, it’s not a practical solution for the average traveler.

Tom Ferguson, a technical consultant to Council on the Safe Transportation of Hazardous Articles, Inc. (CSTHA), was also kind enough to point out the ramifications of the PHMSA interpretation to me. Says Tom, “Many carriers have argued amongst themselves as to whether they could or could not accept such [lithium-ion battery powered] devices for carriage. Quite a few sided with the passenger for fear of discrimination. However, it is important to understand that this interpretation now means carriers are PROHIBITED from accepting them. If they do accept carriage, they will now be violating the Hazardous Materials Regulations and will be subject to Civil Penalties by the FAA.”

What does this mean to travelers? Says Tom, “It is only a matter of time until all US carriers change their policies to reflect the current interpretation. And based on the FAA’s interest in safety, carriers are likely to act quickly.”

There may be some relief in the future, as it’s always possible for the PHMSA to grant an exception to airlines allowing them to transport lithium-ion battery powered mobility devices. I of course will be following this and report on it if it happens. But for now, I really wouldn’t risk traveling by air with a lithium-ion battery powered mobility device, as airline policies can (and most likely will) change at any time. And you don’t want to be left standing at the gate.

And although some consumer groups advise telling the airlines that you have a non-spillable battery, or even label it as such, that?s really not a good idea. Says Mr. Ferguson, “The passenger would be violating hazardous materials regulations which carry both civil and criminal penalties. Civil can include fines up to $50K per violation or up to $250K per case.” And you can’t just bat your eyes and say you didn’t understand the regulations or say that you didn’t know that a lithium-ion battery was not considered a non-spillable batter. According to the FAA, it’s the passenger’s responsibility to know about the contents of their battery because they are considered a “hazardous material shipper.”

So be honest, be careful, and keep abreast of changing regulations. Like I said, this is a new technology and it’s something that?s going to see a lot of changes in the next 6-9 months. I will of course keep you updated on those changes here; and I’m also penning a longer more detailed article on the issue for the Know Before You Go section of Emerging Horizons.