Avalanche airbag backpacks are gaining popularity in North America. According to backcountry.com numbers, sales of the avalanche safety devices have increased 12 times from last season to this season. With more people owning and using airbag packs than ever before, more people are traveling with them.
Since airport and airline security is a high priority, especially here in the United States, traveling by plane with your airbag pack could seem like a dilemma. Sure you can just wing it and hope that no one notices, but chances are your compressed air cylinder or entire pack could be confiscated. Fortunately, with a little planning, flying with your airbag pack is not a problem, but may pose a few inconvenient challenges.
Airbag manufacturers have, and continue to work hard with regulatory agencies both in the US and abroad to make the devices safe and approved for air travel. The International Air Transport Association (IATA) has made special considerations to specifically accommodate for these lifesaving devices, their rules regarding them can be found on IATA Dangerous Goods Table 2.3.A.
ABS-brand packs use special ABS cylinders to inflate its air bags. It also uses a pyrotechnic handle to deploy the bags. Despite information to the contrary, sealed ABS cylinders and pyrotechnic handles are not currently allowed through TSA screening checkpoints, even if they are US DOT certified.
The primary reason that airbags are a challenge to travel with is the compressed gas used to inflate the bladders. Despite using gases classified as Division 2.2, or non-flammable, non-toxic gases, they have still come under scrutiny by airlines, the IATA, and especially the TSA.
ABS-brand packs also employ the use of a small pyrotechnic charge to trigger the activation of their system. While incredibly small and rarely noticed, these explosively charged activation handles may be an issue with the TSA.
In all cases, when you are flying with an airbag pack it is important to print out applicable Materials Safety Data Sheets (MSDS) and IATA Table 2.3.A and keep them with your pack while traveling. Visit your pack manufacturer’s website for the most up to date information regarding your specific brand of airbag pack and to download and print the necessary papers.
Outside of North America, travel with an airbag pack is generally easier. In Europe, and any country where air travel is not governed by the TSA, the IATA allows the transport of airbag packs with pressurized cylinders.
To fly with your airbag, however, you need to plan ahead. Prior approval is required by the airline and it is recommended that you notify them when booking your flight, or at least 14 days in advance. To prevent accidental activation, both the activation handle and the compressed air cylinder must be detached but kept with the airbag pack.
“This is to ensure that the purpose of the cartridge and backpack is obvious to the airport staff,” the ABS website says, “If you check in the cartridge and activation handle separately, they may be confiscated.”
The IATA specifically lays out both the quantity and type of gases allowed, refer to the IATA table if traveling outside of North America to make sure that your device falls within these restrictions.
On flights originating from or bound for North America, the more stringent regulations of the TSA make flying with your airbag pack a bit more complicated.
The BCA Float 30 pack uses a refillable compressed air canister to inflate its airbags. People using BCA, Snowpulse, Mammut, or any other system with a refillable cylinder should be able to fly with it as long as it is completely empty and the valve has been removed prior to your arrival at the airport.
According to the TSA website, “Compressed gas cylinders are allowed in checked baggage or as a carry-on ONLY if the regulator valve is completely disconnected from the cylinder and the cylinder is no longer sealed (i.e. the cylinder has an open end). The cylinder must have an opening to allow for a visual inspection inside.”
Vice president of BackcountryAccess Bruce Edgerly simplifies this, “Carrying full cylinders on carry-on, of course, is outta the question.”
The TSA prohibits sealed cylinders because, “Our Security Officers must visibly ensure that the cylinder is completely empty and that there are no prohibited items inside.”
People using BCA, Snowpulse, Mammut, or any other system with a refillable cylinder should be able to fly with it as long as it is completely empty and the valve has been removed prior to your arrival at the airport.
Despite information to the contrary, sealed ABS cylinders and pyrotechnic handles are not currently allowed through TSA screening checkpoints, even if they are US DOT certified. The sealed disc must be punctured and the activation handle expended. Sneaking your sealed canister through security is an option that can result in confiscation and fines. Renting or purchasing a new one at your final destination might be the best idea.
Arriving at your destination with an empty cylinder leaves you with the task of refilling, exchanging, renting or purchasing a new one. In most cases your cylinder can only be refilled or exchanged by your pack manufacturer’s authorized dealer or refill location, these usually include scuba, paintball stores, or fire stations.
It is recommended that you are aware of a refill location or authorized dealer ahead of time so you aren’t left empty canister-ed. Snowpulse has developed a refill certification process and do-it-yourself equipment which is available to the general public. Ideally, as the use of airbag packs becomes more common, refill locations will also.
Snowpulse has developed a refill certification process and do-it-yourself equipment which is available to the general public. Ideally, as the use of airbag packs becomes more common, refill locations will also.
Airbag packs are becoming more popular both among users and manufacturers with The North Face, Dakine, and Ortovox joining the existing manufacturers in the coming year. As more companies produce them and their use becomes more common among the general public and athletes throughout the world, traveling with airbags will hopefully become easier.
“One thing that I will be working on with ABS in the near future is to write letters to the FAA and Department of Commerce about recognizing and designating the packs as actual life-saving devices,” Avalanche survivor Elyse Saugstad said.
If designated, airbag packs would likely become much easier to pass through TSA checkpoints for air travel.
Bear in mind that this is relatively new and highly specialized technology. Many airport employees and security personnel may be unfamiliar with airbag packs. Your experience may vary from one airport to the next and one country to another. As usual, the Internet is one of your best sources of information regarding traveling with an airbag pack. Not only can you find the appropriate documents you need to carry with your pack to the airport, but there are plenty of personal accounts on forums like the one on this website. Feel free to share your experience to help educate others.
Below are links to TGR forum conversations regarding avalanche airbag systems: