The presents have been unwrapped. The batteries have been charged. Chances are, a few of those new gizmos may be designed to make air travel less stressful and more productive.
Even so, when it is time to board the flight home after the holidays, some gifts simply might not fly.
Devices powered by lithium-ion batteries can cause problems, and airlines balk at virtual reality headsets. Even nonelectronic travel aids can cause concern.
Last holiday season, hoverboards went on airlines’ own Do Not Fly lists because of their propensity to catch fire. This year, expect drones to draw scrutiny, depending on the strength of their batteries.
Under the International Civil Aviation Organization’s dangerous goods regulations, lithium-ion batteries with power greater than 100 watt-hours are not allowed on passenger aircraft without advance approval of the airline. Batteries with power greater than 160 watt-hours are not allowed in passenger carry-on or checked baggage.
Kyle Christy, 30, an auto repair manager with the state of Minnesota, said he often flies with the drones he uses for his freelance job as an aerial photographer.
“The airlines should make it easier,” Christy said.
“A lot of drone batteries are based off milliamp hours,” he added. “The airlines don’t give the formulas to crunch the numbers to see if they fall under the proper watt-hour restrictions.”
With their phones, tablets, cameras and laptops, many passengers carry several battery-powered devices onboard. On a wide-body jet, that could add up to more than 1,000 batteries in the passenger cabin. And sometimes they do catch fire.
That’s why when the Samsung Galaxy Note 7 smartphone was recalled in September, the U.S. Department of Transportation banned them from all flights.
Airline websites typically offer detailed lists of banned, restricted or dangerous goods. But it is difficult to keep up with the marketplace – as with this year’s hot-selling virtual reality headsets. More than 6 million of them have been shipped in 2016, according to SuperData, a market research firm.
Virtual reality gives users a total visual and auditory experience for games and movies. But wearing the goggles and ear-covering headphones can make users oblivious to their surroundings. This is why some airlines have begun prohibiting their use during taxi, takeoff and landing.
“If you are switching off your own situational awareness, you are increasing the risk of injury to yourself if there is an evacuation,” said Jonathan Jasper, also known as JJ, manager of cabin safety for the International Air Transport Association, an airline trade group.
“The guidance across the airlines is they won’t allow them” during those portions of the trip, Jasper said of the headsets. “They need their passengers to be aware of what is going on.”
Jasper gets together every six weeks or so with the safety representatives of 17 airlines to analyze the risks and hazards of new technology and consider whether restrictions are necessary.
“The job of an airline is not to upset passengers before they board,” Jasper said. But airlines feel a need to be vigilant about the things passengers carry with them onto planes.
A flight attendant for a large United States carrier said she was startled recently when she saw that two passengers had attached a small device to a window with a suction cup. The attendant thought it looked like a bomb.
The couple explained it was a GPS device with which they were tracking their route. The flight attendant could not find GPS mentioned in her airline’s policies and procedures manual. And so, after questioning the couple again, she allowed the device to remain.
The flight attendant told the story on the condition that her name not be used, to avoid a possible reprimand from her employer.
Before letting passengers use electronic devices in flight, the Federal Aviation Administration requires airlines to conduct tests to be sure the items do not interfere with planes’ avionics and communications equipment.
“GPS does emit more magnetic interference than a mobile phone, and a mobile phone with a GPS is even more,” Jasper said.
If the airline is not sure, it must be cautious and say no, he said. The next step would be transmitting that information to flight attendants.
Not all questionable carry-ons are electronic. Nicola Burke is a British expat and family travel blogger living in Hong Kong. When she flies with her daughters, ages 7 and 5, she takes a Fly-Tot cushion, the creation of two California mothers who are also frequent fliers. The inflatable Fly-Tot fits on the floor in front of the seats and creates a flat surface where children can stretch out during the flight.
“I have used the Fly-Tot on several airlines, including British Airways, Virgin, Cathay Pacific and Thai Airlines,” Burke said. “I have never been questioned about it.”
But safety officials are scrutinizing the Fly-Tot for its potential to cause heat to build up around in-flight entertainment boxes beneath the seats on some aircraft. Jasper said Fly-Tot’s maker was working to modify the product to reduce that likelihood and the risk the device might block decompression vents on the floor.
“We have been working closely with the cabin safety committee of IATA to ensure that our product meets all safety guidelines for airplane use,” said Winnie Lu, one of the inventors.
A travel aid that was not under any Christmas trees – it does not begin shipping until early 2017 – is the Modobag. But it is already creating airline controversy.
The Modobag is a motorized suitcase meant for travelers to ride as they make their way through the airport, and then take onto the plane with them as carry-on luggage.
When Kevin O’Donnell, a Chicago entrepreneur and inventor, announced the product last summer, he promised that the Modobag would “change the way the world travels.” Not if Delta Air Lines has its way. The airline has already banned such riding suitcases from its flights, citing the same potential battery hazards that got hoverboards banned on most aircraft.
“The poorly labeled, powerful lithium-ion batteries powering these devices are the problem,” said Ashton Morrow, a spokeswoman for Delta. She said the airline had reviewed product specifications and found that manufacturers did not consistently provide sufficient detail about the size or power of the batteries.
O’Donnell declined to provide the power specification for Modobag’s battery. He said in an email that the product was going through a second series of tests “to make sure our batteries meet or exceed the safety requirements of the aviation industry.”
Customers have ordered 400 bags that will be shipped in February, he said.
That should allow plenty of time for other airlines to weigh in before the next holiday gift-giving season begins.
How to determine the power rating of your gadget’s batteries
Airplane passengers carrying the usual assortment of phones, cameras, tablets and e-readers are well within the airline industry’s safety limit for lithium-ion batteries of 100 watt-hours for each device. That figure measures how much energy the battery can hold as well as how much energy it can deliver over time.
Given the potential for lithium-ion batteries to catch fire, the difficulty in extinguishing such a blaze and the toxic fumes a burning battery emits, the airline industry is wary of batteries rated higher than 100 watt-hours, which is typically written as 100 Wh.
According to the website of the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, an office of the federal Department of Transportation, watt-hour ratings are a function of the amount of lithium in the battery. “Eight grams of ELC are about equal to 100 watt-hours,” the website says. ELC refers to equivalent lithium content.
A battery in a smartphone might be only about 12.4 watt-hours. But professional broadcast cameras, batteries for power tools and even some extended-duration laptop batteries can exceed 100 watt-hours. Those are allowed in the cabin of airliners up to a maximum of 160 watt-hours and only under certain conditions.
Usually this means the battery must be installed in the device it is powering and show no signs of damage. Terminals on spare batteries must be taped or otherwise protected to prevent short-circuiting that can lead to a fire or explosion. Portable chargers are also considered spare batteries and can travel only in passenger carry-ons – not in checked luggage where a fire could go undetected.
Newer batteries may show the watt-hours, as Wh preceded by a number, but not all are marked this way.
Calculating the watt-hours based on the information printed on the outside of a battery is not difficult. Multiply the given volts by the battery capacity, shown as milliamps or mAh. Divide the sum by 1,000 to get the watt-hour rating.
Drones, which are increasingly popular and were expected to be an in-demand holiday gift, can require relatively powerful batteries.
Isidor Buchmann, an engineer who runs the informational website Battery University, says that while drone batteries are small, they may have a high watt-hour rating.
“The drone needs both run time and power,” Buchmann said. “It draws a lot of power. It’s almost as bad as a power drill.”