Power Banks on Planes

May 05, 2022

Imagine. You are working in your office. Suddenly, your boss appears at your desk. He asks you to get on the next flight to New York to meet a client. You hurriedly rush home. Hastily, you pack your bags and head to the airport. All the while thinking that you will charge your Thunderbolt 4 laptop with your power bank while getting some work done inflight.  Check-in and head to security. Your bag goes through the X-Ray machine. And then, the TSA agent halts you dead in your tracks. Why? Because he has detected the mighty power bank in your bag. And so begins an ordeal.

If you are a frequent flyer, I am willing to bet that this has happened to you or someone you know at least once.

So what is the rule? What is allowed and what is not? Why are power banks considered a threat? Here is all the information you need.

First: The Rule

Federal Aviation Authority (FAA) and Transport Security Administration (TSA) guidelines allow power banks on planes. However, there are restrictions regarding type, numbers and capacities. These are:

The FAA and TSA place restrictions on power banks that use Lithium-ion cells. This is an insignificant condition. Why? Simply because, almost all power banks use Lithium-ion cells.

  1. You cannot carry more than two power banks.
  2. If your power bank is less than 100 Wh (Watt-hour), you can carry these without informing your airlines. Additionally, you can carry power banks with a capacity of up to 160Wh. However, it would be best if you informed the airlines about this beforehand.
  3. You must carry all power banks in carry-on baggage only.

The rules are clear and concise. Although, they raise more questions than they answer. Let us address each one.

What are Lithium-ion cells? And why are they dangerous?

Lithium-ion batteries pose a very critical fire threat. These batteries are prone to heating and catching fire is not handled with care. If damaged, these batteries are known to cause low-intensity explosions as well. Hence, storing them for the purpose of air travel causes a severe threat to the safety of the aircraft.

One may ask, why then are they allowed in carry-on baggage and not checked-in baggage. We explain.

Why are power banks allowed in carry-on baggage only?

Generally, air travel is considered one of the safest means of transport. This is because billions of dollars are spent to take care of its safety and security aspects.

This restriction is yet another measure to ensure this safety. Checked-in bags are stored in the cargo hold of the aircraft. Once airborne, there is no easy access to this part of the plane. Hence, in the case of an emergency, it would take precious minutes to reach the source of the fire before someone can extinguish it. On the other hand, carry-on baggage is easily accessible. In case of an emergency, your friendly cabin crew members take on the role of fire-fighters. They are experts and will douse the fire in a matter of a few seconds.

Power banks are not the only threat. Passengers are advised to carry their laptops, smartphones, cameras, Bluetooth speakers or any other device which uses a battery in carry-on baggage only. This is also done for the very same reason as for power banks. Most of these modern devices use Lithium-ion batteries. Hence, all of these pose a potential threat.

One needn't worry too much though. These devices do not count towards the two units restriction of the power bank. That applies to power banks only. Hence, if you have the need for it, do not hesitate to carry these devices. As a precautionary measure, you can cover up the terminals of the batteries with some tape to be extra careful.

Before we proceed, we need to be sure of what the measurements- Watt-hour and milli-Ampere-hour signify.

What is Watt-hour (Wh)? What is milli-Ampere-hour(mAh)? And, What is the difference?

Simply put, Wh and mAh are different measures of battery capacity.

In layman terms, Watt measures the unit of power. Hence, Wh measures that power over a period of 1 hour.

On the other hand, a milli-Ampere-hour (1000 milli-Ampere) measures the flow of electricity over one hour.

Therefore, it makes more sense to measure battery capacity with respect to the power it provides. The Watt-hour measurement provides a more versatile means to measure battery capacity. It does this by measuring different types of batteries on a standard scale to get a better and fair assessment.

Why is this information important?

This is because most power bank vendors sell their power banks using the milli-Ampere-hour units. Hence, one needs to convert this into Watt-hour units.

This conversion is even simpler. Just use the simple formula

Wh=mAh/1000*V

Where,

mAh = milli-Ampere-hour, which measure the flow of electricity

V= Volts, which is the Nominal Voltage*

Wh = Watt-hour, which measures the power

*For the sake of simplicity, consider this to be the average voltage at which the battery operates. In the case of Lithium-ion batteries, it is usually 3.7 volts.

Too complicated? Here is a simple hack, most power bank vendors mention the Wh units on a small tiny label pasted on the power bank. You know, it is usually the one with the name of the country in which the device is made. It would mention the battery capacity in mAh. This will be followed by the Wh units as well. Still confused?

Not to worry, we have you covered. If your power bank ranges between 0 to approximately 27000mAh, fly merrily without a care in the world. Just make sure you do not carry more than two power banks. If the mAh capacity is roughly between 27000mAh and 43200mAh, get the airline's approval in advance, before you fly. This process is not complicated.

So you have completed all the formalities and are ready to board the plane. Even now, the airlines can request you to store your carry-on in the cargo hold. In such a case, you must remove and carry all your power banks and batteries with you.

Note: You can carry power banks that have a capacity of over 160Wh. The airlines treat these as dangerous goods. They have special procedures to handle such goods on board.




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