Published 5/03, Copyright 2003,

Flying Batteries:
Protocol for Powerchair and Scooter Air Air Transport

By Mark E. Smith

Since September 11, 2002, airline travel in the U.S. and abroad has undergone increased scrutiny.  This heightened awareness at airports is not only placed on passengers and baggage, but also on powered mobility equipment.  Nevertheless, by understanding your powerchair or scooter's features, in conjunction with the airlines' rules on transporting batteries, you can better ensure that both you and your mobility equipment make it to your destination, stress-free and on schedule.

The airlines follow IATA/DOT transportation standards for non-spillable batteries, specifically accepting GEL and AGM VRLA batteries (commonly called "dry-cell").  However, merely having what is thought of as a dry-cell battery may not be enough, as airlines look for certification that a battery is classified as "non-dangerous" via such label wording as "FAA, CAB, ICAO, IMDG, and IATA and DOT Air Transport Approved."  These certifications mean that a battery has past tests for pressure differentials, vibration, and case strength -- that is, approved qualities for safe air transport.  Additionally, along with these designations, the label should also contain the wording "Non-Spillable."  On battery brands like MK and Pride, this all-encompassing label is readily placed on the top of the battery.  

Beyond clear labeling, a battery must be secured to the mobility equipment, disconnected from the electrical system, and insulated from short circuits.  If the powerchair or scooter securely encapsulates the batteries in a battery compartment, such as a Quickie 646 or Blast 850, or within secured battery boxes, such as an Invacare Arrow 3G, the batteries may not require removal.  However, during transport, the batteries must be disconnected (commonly accomplished by disconnecting the battery harnessing - the wires that connect the batteries to the mobility equipment).   Additionally, the battery terminals must be protected from accidental contact via a rubber or plastic insulating cap (these are the red and black "boots" that cover where the harness wires connect to the battery terminals).

As a business traveler with a disability, I am accustomed to transporting my powerchair on airlines, having become very comfortable with the process.  During initial check-in at the ticket counter, I inform them that I'm traveling with my powerchair, "which has sealed, dry-cell batteries."  The attendant or a manager then opens the rear door of my battery compartment (a benefit over battery boxes for frequent travelers), where the battery label is easily read - the airline is quickly assured that my batteries are approved for air travel.  I use a "gate check" for my powerchair, meaning that I drive my powerchair to the door of the plane, where I transfer onto an aisle chair, and my powerchair is taken to cargo.  During this boarding process, the rear door of my battery compartment is again opened, where two battery plugs are easily accessed and disconnected, and my powerchair is then ready for transport (the entire battery disconnection process takes less than one minute).

To some, such strict battery certification protocol may seem excessive; after all, wet-cell batteries have been used in powerchairs and many other vehicles for decades.  However, with the abrupt jarring and directional changes that an airplane can experience, a battery may be subject to movement well beyond typical use.  Additionally, on smaller planes, cargo handlers may lay a powerchair or scooter on its side to fit it in cargo, so certified battery types protect your mobility equipment and the plane from potential damage and safety hazards.  

No matter if you fly frequently, your powerchair or scooter still requires batteries.  By confirming that your batteries are certified for air transport, you are assured that on a business trip tomorrow or a trip to a family reunion next year, your mobility equipment will be easily and safely transported to your destination.


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