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Traveling 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 designed to address the traveling with an avalanche airbag pack on planes.

You'll learn about

  1. Refillable- and sealed-cylinder airbag systems
  2. Airline and regulatory restrictions that affect traveling with an airbag backpack
  3. Best practices for traveling by air with an airbag pack
  4. How to recharge or refit your airbag backpack once you reach your destination

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.

Travelling with an Avalanche Airbag Backpack

Know Your System

To know your airbag system is to understand the basic components involved in its operation. A basic understanding of your system's cylinder type and trigger mechanism will make it significantly easier to navigate the ins and outs of airbag airline regulations.

As of January 2013, the majority of the airbag packs on the market are based on one of two types of systems. While there's no industry standard for categorizing the types of packs on the market, for the purposes of this article we've categorized them in this way: refillable, compressed-air systems that use mechanical triggers and sealed-cylinder gas systems that use 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. Each system offers a unique benefit in terms of performance, backpack design, and availability of supplies. Decide which system works best for you based on your budget or personal preference.

Refillable-Cylinder Systems

  • Utilize a mechanical trigger connected to an activation handle
  • Feature refillable cylinders fitted with a pressure valve and filled with highly pressurized air
  • Once discharged, can be recharged at a high-pressure refilling station
  • Brands that use this system include BCA, Mammut, and Snowpulse

Sealed-Cylinder Systems

  • Activation handle utilizes a pyrotechnic trigger containing a small amount of explosive charge which pierces an activation disc on a sealed cylinder
  • Feature sealed, single-use cylinders filled with compressed nitrogen or a similar gas
  • Are completely spent when punctured, and must be replaced after every use
  • Exclusive to ABS packs or ABS system partners

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.

ABS Pack on Planes

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 charged gas cylinders for avalanche rescue units, and it even makes an exception for the exact amount of pyrotechnic charge contained within the handle of the ABS-brand airbag pack*. Recently released IATA guidelines also suggest that future exceptions will expand to include other trigger systems and larger volume cylinders.

In the United States, the TSA is more restrictive. All cylinders must have an opening that the TSA can use to inspect the inside of the cylinder. In addition, the 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. 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.

Pack It Up

Preparation is the most important step in this process. Here are the preparatory steps you should take before you board your flight:

First and foremost, the most foolproof way to ensure that you're able to fly with your airbag backpack is to fully discharge both the cylinder and activation handle and repack the air bladder (or bladders) before flying. This is recommended by many manufacturers as a fail-safe method if you're unsure if your airbag pack meets airlines' or regulatory bodies' requirements.

If you have a sealed-cylinder (ABS) system, you can either choose to practice by fully discharging your avy pack, or you can remove the trigger handle and sealed cylinder without discharging the system. Discharging your system means that your handle and cylinder are now deactivated and will have to be replaced. There's no sense taking either on the plane, particularly given that a discharged handle still contains trace amounts of pyrotechnic charge. Also, should you discharge your system on the day of departure, be sure to wash your hands. Trace amounts of pyrotechnic may fall onto your hands, and this could cause problems when you attempt to pass through a security checkpoint.

If you have a compressed-air system, discharge it, 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 or bladders. 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.

Most airbag pack manufacturers provide safety tables (also known as data tables) for your airbag unit. These tables provide 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. Often these tables are available on the manufacturer's website, free of charge, and they can be helpful to print out and pack with your airbag in carry-on and checked luggage. Additionally, it never hurts to print out a copy of the TSA or IATA guidelines. Carry one copy on your person and another copy with your checked baggage. All of this may sound like overkill to the experienced traveler, but a few minutes of printing could save you a lengthy discussion about your gear.

In Europe, the IATA requires that you call two weeks in advance to inform your airline that you'll be traveling with ‘Avalanche Rescue Equipment.' Once you‘ve received confirmation of this from your airline, it's also suggested that you print a copy of the confirmation, keep one copy on you, and put another copy in your checked luggage or carry-on luggage.

After you've discharged your airbag, repacked the air bladder, and printed your documents, you can either stash the avy pack in your checked luggage or carry it on. Some manufacturers posit that transporting your avy pack in your checked luggage allows you the benefit of declaring and discussing the pack with baggage personnel that have access to more information than those of security screeners, thus decreasing your chances of having to go to great lengths to explain your pack. Other manufacturers hold that carrying on your avy pack puts you in a better position to explain the nature of the pack, its use, and the components, rather than leaving it up to the interpretation of checked-baggage security.

In many cases, checked-baggage restrictions are more forgiving than those of carry-on, and since the checked-bag screening process happens behind the scenes, there's a potential you could save yourself some time at security. Ultimately keep in mind any restrictions (such as the IATA's requirement that the trigger, cylinder, and pack must travel together) and remember that a clear head, ample information, and proper preparation are you best allies for flying.

There is one exception to checking your airbag unit: if you own a compressed-air system, you'll 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.

A Quick Recap

  1. Discharge or disarm your airbag pack at home
  2. If you have a sealed-cylinder system, leave the pyrotechnic handle and discharged cylinder at home
  3. If you have a refillable-cylinder system, pack the empty cylinder and unscrewed cylinder lid in your carry-on
  4. Repack the air bladder or bladders and either carry the pack on or place it in your checked luggage
  5. Find and print any necessary documentation and pack it or attach it to the refillable cylinder
  6. Contact your airline and declare your intention to travel with an Avalanche Rescue Device well ahead of time (up to two weeks prior to departure, in the case of the IATA)
  7. Arrive at the airport, check any baggage, and proceed to TSA screening point
  8. At security screening point, remove the plastic bag containing the discharged refillable cylinder and lid from your carry-on baggage
  9. Proceed through screening and present any supporting manufacturer or regulatory documentation if required
  10. Fly like an eagle

Eventually this process will become second nature and you won't give a second thought to flying with your airbag pack.

Airbag Transport Regulations

After You Land

You've navigated security, hopped your flight, and now you're faced with the task of locating the activation handle, sealed cylinder, or cylinder recharging station you need to get your pack back online. The type of system you have will largely determine what resources, shops, and dealers are available to you, and in some remote parts of the U.S. and Europe, options can be limited. It's always best to do a little research before you fly and make sure you're prepared to get your airbag back in the game after you hit the ground.

Here's a breakdown of what you need to replace, based on the system you have, and a list of dealer resources to help you get what you need.

Refillable-Cylinder Systems

  • Trigger: Because your trigger system is mechanical, you can fly with it, so it resets automatically with every pull. No need to recharge or reset it.
  • Cylinder: These 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.

Sealed-Cylinder System (ABS)

  • Trigger & handle: After every pull of the ABS system, both the handle and gas cylinder must be replaced. Triggers and cylinders can be purchased from authorized ABS dealers online or at a brick-and-mortar location for a nominal fee.
  • Some shops and dealers will rent this trigger/handle combination to you for a nominal fee plus a deposit. Return the handle and cylinder to the dealership unused, and you're credited back your deposit. Use the system and you're charged for the handle and cylinder. Rental locations are limited, although more so in the States than in Europe.
  • Alternatively you can order an activation handle and/or cylinder ahead of time and have them shipped to your destination. This cuts down on time spent shopping dealers or handling rental procedures.

Once you purchase or rent the components needed to reactivate your airbag, please install these components based on the manufacturer recommendations and instructions. If you're not comfortable reinstalling these components, a dealer should be able to help you do so.

Manufacturer Resources

  1. ABS, The North Face, & Dakine (ABS system)
    1. Dealers & Rental Locations: //abs-airbag.de/en/meta/haendlersuche/
    2. Transport & Data Tables: //abs-airbag.de/us/service/abs-in-planes/
  2. Snowpulse & Mammut (RAS system)
    1. Snowpulse Transport & Data Tables: //www.snowpulse.com/en/rubrique/conseils-faq/transport/
    2. Mammut Transport & Data Tables: //www.mammut.ch/en/avalanchesafety_airbags_kartuschen.html
    3. Mammut Dealers: //www.snowpulse.com/en/rubrique/ou-acheter-louer/
  3. Backcountry Access (Compressed-Air System)
    1. Cylinder Refill: //www.backcountryaccess.com/customer-service/cylinder-refill-instructions/
    2. Packing Instructions: //www.backcountryaccess.com/customer-service/removing-and-installing-float-system/
    3. Transport Instructions: //www.backcountryaccess.com/customer-service/commercial-air-travel-instructions/
    4. Dealer Locations://www.backcountryaccess.com/customer-service/map2/
  4. Backcountry Access(Compressed-Air System)
    1. Cylinder Refill: //www.backcountryaccess.com/customer-service/cylinder-refill-instructions/
    2. Packing Instructions: //www.backcountryaccess.com/customer-service/removing-and-installing-float-system/
    3. Transport Instructions: //www.backcountryaccess.com/customer-service/commercial-air-travel-instructions/
    4. Dealer Locations://www.backcountryaccess.com/customer-service/map2/

Airline Regulation Agencies

  1. TSA – United States: //www.tsa.gov/traveler-information/prohibited-items
    1. Compressed gas cylinders: //www.tsa.gov/traveler-information/compressed-gas-cylinders
  2. IATA – Europe: //www.iata.org/whatwedo/cargo/dgr/Pages/faq.aspx
  3. CATSA – Canada: //www.catsa-acsta.gc.ca/Page.aspx?ID=58&pname=CompleteItemList_ListeCompleteArticles&lang=en

Glossary of Terms

  • Avalanche Rescue Device: The IATA's preferred terminology for airbag backpack.
  • Airbag Pack: Also known as an avy pack, airbag backpack, or avalanche rescue device. This includes the backpack, air bladders, activation unit, and cylinder as a whole.
  • Air Bladders: The bladders that expand from the top or sides of the airbag pack to help you ‘float' and rise to the top of the avalanche debris.
  • CATSA: The Canadian Air Transport Security Authority. The CATSA regulates airline security throughout the provinces of Canada.
  • Cylinder: The container that holds the nitrogen or compressed-air propellant that inflates the bladders of your airbag pack.
  • IATA: The International Air Transport Association. The IATA is based in Geneva, Switzerland, and it regulates airline security in Europe.
  • Trigger: The handle you pull to activate the airbag functions that inflate the air bladders in your airbag backpack. Triggers work by triggering an explosive charge that pierces a sealed cylinder or by using a mechanical system to trigger the release on a refillable cylinder.
  • TSA: The Transportation Security Administration. The TSA is based in Virginia in the United States, and it regulates airline security in the United States.