Passenger Removed from Southwest Airlines Flight for Carry-On Drone

BY Alan Perlman
28 April 2016

It is difficult, nowadays, to find a U.S. passenger who doesn’t have a horror story about an airline, airport, or transportation authority. Over the past two decades, traveling as a commercial passenger in the United States has become an ever-changing and haphazard endeavor that practically ensures that someone, somewhere, is going to have a bad time during the process. While I would love to say that things are getting better and becoming more streamlined, it appears that, that is not the case. To see an example of this, you merely need to look to Colin Smith of photoshopCafe who was recently removed from a Southwest Airlines flight for having a DJI Phantom as his carry-on.

According to his video posted to YouTube, Smith was removed from a Southwest Airlines flight on April 21st, 2016 because his carry-on bag contained a DJI Phantom and its lithium-ion polymer (LiPo) batteries. By the time that Smith boarded his plane, there was no more overhead storage space, which is when he was informed that his bag would need to be checked. While Smith had no problem with his luggage being checked, he informed the flight staff that FAA regulations state that LiPo batteries are only acceptable as carry-on items and are not to be stored in the undercarriage of the plane.

Smith’s reading of the FAA regulations is an accurate interpretation and is derived from the fact that the fire suppressant used in commercial planes of this size, Halon 1301, is ineffective against fires caused by faulty or damaged LiPo batteries. According to Smith, upon hearing that the carry-on contained LiPo batteries, the Southwest crew consulted with the pilot and informed Smith that he would have to leave the plane as the pilot did not want these items on his plane. After a brief protest where Smith plead his case and tried to inform the staff of the regulations, he was forced to de-board the plane, which departed without him.

The Offending Drone Contraband

The Offending Drone Contraband – Source: Colin Smith

To Smith’s credit, he handled the situation as best as can be expected and focused on trying to educate and inform the Southwest crew and operations specialists of the Federal regulations and his compliance with them. While an element of this composure can be attributed to him appearing to be a genuinely agreeable fellow, another side of it comes from his status as a U.S. expert in drone operations and safety. In fact, this incident occurred as he was attempting to board a plane home from a convention in Las Vegas where he had been acting as an instructor teaching new and advanced pilots how to fly and operate their drones safely.

As Smith notes, he tried persistently to explain the FAA regulations to any Southwest employee who would listen, but unfortunately, he could not find any who were aware of the rules about lithium-ion polymer batteries. At one point during the incident, Smith displayed the FAA website where he illustrated the regulations involving these batteries, but he was met with a response that anyone could put anything on a website. Eventually after some further research, a Southwest operations supervisor was able to confirm that Smith was, in fact, operating completely in compliance with regulations and that he was able to carry-on the batteries onto the plane. He was then booked for a later flight home and issued a partial refund for his hassle.

Phantom4Battery

Simple Battery or Flight Hazard? – Source: Ars Technica

Smith appears to hold little to no animosity toward Southwest for the hassle he incurred as he states. “My goal in all of this isn’t to get anyone at Southwest in trouble,” he states, “I’m hoping [for a] spread of information that will hopefully educate the ground and aircrews to prevent this from happening to others or myself again.” As a sentiment, I think he is right on point. It appears that traveling in the U.S. airspace has become so convoluted that the airline employees, themselves, aren’t even aware of the rules; which, if that is the case, how can a passenger be expected to follow them?

Smith acknowledges that he was helped by some very friendly Southwest employees after his removal who apologized after realizing the error and ensured that he made it onto his next flight safely. In speaking with Smith, he states that he was very satisfied with the Southwest customer service efforts after the incident. To ensure that the story was not being misrepresented, I reached out to Southwest to find their side of the incident and see if I could get a statement on their carry-on policy for these type of items. My experience was similar to Smith’s as I was met with helpful employees who addressed my concerns, but ultimately left me with a slightly lackluster response when it comes to clarity about their rules. A Southwest spokesperson relayed the following statement to me:

            “Safety is our top priority and, to that end, our procedures and policies pertaining to Customers’ transport of lithium batteries are carefully crafted to meet or exceed all U.S. Department of Transportation hazardous materials regulations. Additionally, we empower our Employees to make decisions in the interest of safety, and in this particular case, we’ve worked directly with the Customer to address his concerns. We’re proud to have the best Employees in the industry who continue to go above and beyond all that is necessary to get our Customers safely to their destinations.”

Now, for me, this further illustrates the problem. The problem is that we have an instance where a passenger was operating in complete compliance with regulations listed on FAA, TSA, DoT and Southwest websites who was still removed from a flight. When questioned about an official policy to follow so that this won’t happen to passengers in the future, I received merely a statement that their policy is designed to meet or exceed all U.S. Department of Transportation regulations. The Southwest website, itself, directs passengers to a Department of Transportation page for all lithium battery inquiries.

The referenced Department of Transportation page states that lithium-ion batteries not currently installed in a device, are allowed in carry-on bags as long as they are rated under 100 watt-hours. The batteries that Smith was carrying were rated at 81.3 watt-hours, so they fell far below this threshold.

Traveling With Lithium Batteries - Source: Department of Transportation

Traveling With Lithium Batteries – Source: Department of Transportation

The DoT page also notes that these items are not allowed in checked baggage, which makes Smith completely in the right to advise and notify the flight staff of these items. If he had said nothing, the bag would have been checked in the undercarriage and, then, could have posed a safety hazard. Despite notices of compliance on the FAA, DoT, and TSA websites, I decided to quadruple-check the regulations and gave a call to TSA. After 35 minutes of talking to a robot, I gave up on that line of thought and just sent a message to them on Twitter where I asked, “Am I allowed to bring two uninstalled lithium-ion batteries in my carry-on bag if each is rated under 100 watt-hours?” I was pleasantly surprised to get a wonderful response from TSA’s twitter team that said:

AskTSA

Source: Twitter.com @AskTSA

With confirmation of the compliance to stated rules from several different Federal entities and the added eventual allowance of Smith’s travel, it is hard to believe that there is anything else he could have done to prevent this occurrence, which leaves me with questions about Southwest’s policy. I believe a case where a drone operator was being responsible to the point of his own inconvenience warrants a more informed response from Southwest. If he did something wrong and it can be remedied to prevent others from facing this in the future, the company needs to notify the general public about this and if he was in the right and the company merely made a mistake, then they need to say as such. Everyone makes mistakes and it is perfectly acceptable to do so.

Without an official stance on this matter, I’m only left to assume that Southwest’s policy, whatever it might be, allows their pilots to remove anyone from any flight for any rational or irrational reason and that drones are included in those irrational reasons. I completely respect and champion an airline and pilot’s right to protect the aircraft and passengers against any perceived threat, but there needs to be an element of reason, as well. I mean, there are more incidents of in-flight entertainment systems causing fires and fatal crashes in passenger planes than from small lithium-ion batteries.

In short, if Southwest is going to impose rules that are more stringent than the Federal standards, those need to be clearly outlined in a manner that is easily obtainable by passengers. Until then, it may be safe to assume that your desire to respect the safety of yourself, the crew and your fellow passengers will result in a large inconvenience for you and your loved ones attempting to fly with a drone on Southwest Airlines. We will issue an update to this story if we receive any further clarification of Southwest’s specific rules for lithium-ion batteries.

You can view Colin Smith’s entire account of the event here:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wKwoWmr3QLc

Alan Perlman

Founder & CEO

Alan is an FAA-certified drone pilot and founded UAV Coach in 2014 to help connect drone enthusiasts, to provide world-class sUAS industry training courses, and to help push the drone community forward with a focus on safety and commercial opportunities.

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