Air Travel with an Airbag Backpack
Avalanche airbag packs are unlike any other safety tool in a backcountry skier’s arsenal. Pull a handle and, in the blink of an eye, you increase your chances of ending up on top of a slide instead of underneath it. The very same technology that enables this survival advantage makes this safety tool unique in the eyes of airlines and regulatory institutions. We distilled the information from airbag manufacturers and airline regulations into a short guide for traveling with an avalanche airbag pack on planes.
If you read nothing else in this article, keep one thing in mind:
The safest way to travel with an airbag pack is to fully discharge the unit at home before you fly. Many manufacturers suggest this, and in most cases, you can’t fly with a charged cylinder or an activation handle, anyway.
Know Your System
You’ll need a basic understanding of your system’s cylinder type and trigger mechanism in order to be able to navigate the ins and outs of airbag airline regulations.
As of December of 2014, the majority of the airbag packs on the market are based on one of two types of systems. For the purposes of this article we’ve categorized them in this way: 1) refillable, compressed-air systems that use mechanical triggers, and 2) sealed-cylinder gas systems that use high-speed pyrotechnic triggers. In both systems, the cylinder stores the propellant needed to inflate the airbags and give you lift, and the trigger or handle initiates the inflation.
There’s a third type of technology that has recently come on the market. Black Diamond developed its JetForce technology in collaboration with PIEPS; both companies offer backpacks that include it. JetForce technology abandons traditional canister deployment systems in favor of a lithium ion battery-powered jet fan. Since the system is rechargeable, it eliminates the cost of expensive canisters and refills, and it gets rid of the added hassle of trying to travel with compressed air or nitrogen. This means zero-hassle travel. If this sounds good, you can stop reading this now and start shopping.
- Feature refillable cylinders fitted with a pressure valve and filled with highly pressurized air
- Utilize a mechanical trigger connected to an activation handle
- Once discharged, can be recharged at a high-pressure refilling station (scuba shop, etc.)
- Brands that use this system include BCA, Mammut, and Snowpulse.
- Feature sealed, single-use cylinders filled with compressed nitrogen or a similar gas
- Activation handle utilizes a pyrotechnic trigger containing a small amount of explosive charge that pierces an activation disc on a sealed cylinder
- Are completely spent when punctured, and must be replaced after every use
- Exclusive to ABS packs or ABS system partners (including The North Face, DAKINE, Vaude, Ortovox)
Every manufacturer provides the information you need to determine which type of cylinder you have, what your cylinder is made of, and whether the cylinder is US Department of Transportation (DOT) approved or approved by the European equivalent to the DOT.
It’s important to note, however, that some refillable-cylinder airbag systems also accept sealed cylinders, and some metal cylinders can be replaced with carbon-fiber versions. Small changes in cylinder type or material may mean a big change in whether or not that cylinder is allowed onboard a plane.
Know Your Airline Airbag Regulations
While DOT approval means that a cylinder is approved for ground travel, it doesn’t necessarily mean it’s approved for air transportation. You’ll interact with two major sets of airline regulations while traveling between the United States and Europe: the United States TSA and the European IATA. Each regulatory commission maintains lists of items restricted for both carry-on and checked luggage, based on its own security justifications. In general, the most restrictive guidelines dictate what can and can’t be carried onto a plane, while checked baggage is given more latitude. Traveling within the respective borders of each of these regulatory commissions is often easier than crossing them.
Because airbag packs were introduced to the European market in the late ‘80s, European airline regulations are more progressive than those of the United States. Currently, the IATA allows the transport of a single pack containing one charged gas cylinder and a single trigger mechanism containing less than 200mg of explosive substance.
In the United States, the TSA is more restrictive. For compressed air systems, all cylinders must have an opening that the TSA can use to inspect the inside of the cylinder. TSA prohibits the transport of any ‘charged’ cylinder (live or filled cylinder) as well as the pyrotechnic contained within the activation handle of an ABS pack. However, due to the non-explosive nature of their triggering process, mechanical triggers (like those in BCA avy packs) are not prohibited.
As always, the IATA and TSA set regulations that the airlines must abide to, but the airlines are free to independently impose further restrictions (The Canadian CATSA leaves it up to the airlines entirely). It’s always wise to contact your airline ahead of time to ensure that you have the most up-to-date information regarding items restricted or prohibited by the airline you’re flying.
Backcountry Athlete Jamey Parks. Photo: Re Wikstrom
Refillable compressed-air systems
Discharge the system, leave the handle in place (it’s mechanism-based, not pyrotechnic charge-based), and remove the cylinder from the unit before you repack the air bladder(s). Since this cylinder is reusable, you’ll want to take it with you, but first you’ll need to remove the cylinder lid and pack the lid and the empty cylinder in a clear plastic bag for screening with your carry-on luggage.
Once you arrive at your destination, cylinders can be recharged at a manufacturer or dealer location, or you can go outside your dealer network to find a SCUBA diving store, paintball store, fire station, or other facility capable of filling a high-pressure air cylinder. Just be sure that you are clear on how to reassemble the system once you have a full cylinder.
Sealed-cylinder (ABS) systems
You have several options:
- Fully discharge your avy pack and bring along the discharged system to trade it in for a new one at an ABS dealer at your destination. Remove the cylinder and trigger, store them in a sealed plastic bag, and pack in your checked luggage. If you are traveling the same day, be sure to wash your hands well because trace amounts of pyrotechnic may fall onto your hands, and this could cause problems when you attempt to pass through a security checkpoint. OR
- Remove the sealed system (cylinder and trigger) from your pack and leave it behind. Once at your destination, you can either rent a system (locations are limited in the US) or insert a new one (this will cost more than exchanging the system you already have). Brick-and-mortar dealers are relatively plentiful, or you can order a new one online and have it shipped to your destination in advance.
Research your options before you go, and determine if there is a dealer/rental/refill facility available where you are going (after locating one online, follow up with a phone call to ensure that it carries what you need). This may determine whether or not you need to order in advance and have it shipped to your destination.
Download the data table for your pack. This provides information about the operation of the unit, the materials used in the unit, the regulations and engineering guidelines met by the unit design, and more. Taking a few minutes of printing could save you a lengthy discussion at the airline check-in counter or security checkpoint about your gear.
To check, or to carry on? In general, checked-baggage restrictions are more forgiving than those for carry-on luggage, and since the checked-bag screening process happens behind the scenes, there’s a potential you could save yourself some time at security. On the other hand, you are not there to personally explain what the unit is and how it works. Note that if you own a compressed-air system, you’ll definitely want to carry on and declare the discharged, opened, and empty cylinder and lid. Should there be any question of the cylinder’s use, this will allow you to explain fully and in person the nature of the cylinder.
ABS System (ABS, The North Face, Dakine, Ortovox, Salewa, Deuter, Vaude)
Snowpulse (Refillable compressed-air system)
Mammut (Refillable compressed-air system)
Backcountry Access (BCA) (Refillable compressed-air system)
Backcountry Athlete Griffin Post, Sawtooth Mountains, ID. Photo: Tommy Chandler