Thursday, December 10, 2015

Airlines jumping on hoverboard 'ban' wagon

With their popularity on this year’s Christmas and holiday gift lists, air travelers will want to know that several airlines have banned hoverboards from their aircraft over safety concerns.

For those who are not aware, "hoverboard" has become the somewhat generic term for self-balancing personal transportation devices, ranging from a device that looks like a skateboard deck with a single wheel to two-wheeled platforms to larger devices that more closely resemble the popular Segway.

The troublesome issue is the devices’ power source: powerful lithium-ion batteries that are often poorly labeled, according to a Dec. 10 statement by Delta Air Lines (NYSE:DAL) announcing it was banning the devices starting Dec. 11.

“Delta reviewed hoverboard product specifications and found that manufacturers do not consistently provide detail about the size or power of their lithium-ion batteries,” the airline said in a statement announcing the ban.

Alaska Airlines (NYSE:ALK), which banned the boards the week of Dec. 1, issued a statement Dec. 10 echoing Delta's concerns.

"Hoverboards are usually powered by lithium ion batteries, which are regulated by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) as hazardous materials," Alaska's statement said. "Internal short-circuits can occur with lithium ion batteries, which can then lead to a 'thermal runaway' where the battery overheats and bursts into flame."

Delta noted that such occurrences are uncommon. However, thermal runaways involving lithium-ion batteries -- though considerably larger than those that power hoverboards -- led to the temporary grounding of Boeing’s (NYSE:BA) 787 Dreamliners in 2013.

Delta's investigation revealed devices often contain battery varieties above the government mandated 160 watt-hour limit permitted aboard aircraft.

Lithium-ion batteries are common in a wide variety of consumer electronics beyond hoverboards but they are still subject to restrictions. Under Federal Aviation Administration rules, there is no limit on consumer sized" lithium-ion batteries of up to 100 watt-hours per battery. However, larger lithium-ion batteries cannot exceed 160 watt-hours to be transported. Any spare larger batteries not already installed into an electronic device must be in carry-on baggage, and no more than two spares are allowed.

Other airlines, including jetBlue (NYSE:JBLU), Frontier Airlines and British Airways also ban the devices altogether.

As of this post, United Airlines (NYSE:UAL) allows the devices in carry-on and checked luggage provided the batteries fall within the FAA's guidance while American Airlines (NYSE:AAL) allows the items as carry-on baggage if it meets the airlines carry-on policy and FAA size limits. Southwest (NYSE:LUV) prefers that the devices be carried on if the battery is smaller than the 160 watt-hour limit but also allows them in checked luggage if the item is too large to meet carry-on size guidelines.

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