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January 2019    Download the Entire Issue (PDF) Available to the Public Vol. 45, No. 1   RSS Feed for Undercurrent Issues
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Confused about Lithium Batteries?

from the January, 2019 issue of Undercurrent   Subscribe Now

The rules for flying with lithium batteries are tough, not always well understood, and enforced differently around the world. When one of our subscribers departed Cairo via Jet Blue for New York's JFK airport, screeners confiscated his wife's AA rechargeable batteries, "saying they needed to be in checked baggage." TSA wants batteries NOT to be checked, in case they short and cause a fire, so if we had put the batteries in our checked bags, they could have been confiscated when we got to the U.S.

"After finishing the screening, I asked to see a supervisor and find out how a diver could get to the Red Sea and take photos if batteries in checked luggage would be taken by the TSA and batteries in a carry-on would be taken by their checkers. The supervisor asked why we had so many rechargeable AA batteries (16). I told him that both strobes required four batteries, and we charged the second set while using the first set. The supervisor took my wife's batteries and put them in her strobes, then distributed the second set of batteries into each piece of carry-on luggage, and said we were good to go. As soon as we were away from the screening area, we took the batteries out of the strobes to prevent the strobes from accidentally powering up and creating a heating issue, then we put the batteries back into the original, and much safer, storage container."

Our subscriber arrived home with all his gear, but the rule interpretations don't seem quite right. You see, the rules depend on the gear's configuration and either Watt/Hour (Wh) rating for rechargeable batteries or Lithium Content (LC) for non-rechargeable batteries.

Batteries less than 100 Wh or two grams of LC -- such as the AA batteries commonly used in much photographic equipment -- can either be carried in dive equipment onboard or stowed in your checked baggage. A traveler is limited to two spare batteries.

Laptops usually have 11.1-volt batteries, while mobile phones use 3.7 volts. Batteries more than 100 Wh but less than 160 Wh can either be carried on or checked if installed within your laptop, camera, or mobile phone, but you must carry on your spares (a maximum of two). If you have a video or powerful dive light with lithium batteries, check their size. They will be marked with Ah/voltage or Wh. Those of more than 160 Wh are to be packed in your checked luggage, and you are required to inform the airplane staff when you check in; then it is up to the discretion of airline staff (who presumably check with the aircraft captain) if they travel with you. Batteries in underwater lights are specifically mentioned in the rules, although even the most powerful Keldan lights have batteries of less than 100 Wh now.

There is a lot of inconsistency among security in different countries, including our own TSA. If screeners think you have too many spares -- the number seems arbitrary -- they may confiscate them. Our senior editor, John Bantin, was told to carry his spare AA batteries in his hand luggage when traveling from the U.K., only to have them confiscated when making a connecting flight in the U.S. because "they should have been checked in." He says that in Egypt, security staff make a habit of confiscating batteries -- especially those that fit their private radios -- from a carry-on, so he conceals them in his checked baggage.

Security staff can still be confused. One reader recently reported that when a Cairo screener found he was carrying on his regulator, he was told all scuba gear must be in checked baggage, "so he insisted I check my carry-on bag (I had already checked my luggage). I believe the screener was confused about which scuba items are required to be checked." However, Bantin says that the reinforced high-pressure hose of a regulator shows up as a coil of wire on the X-ray, so it's wise to check it.

Yes, it can be confusing. What to do? If you don't want to miss your plane, just follow airport security's directions.

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