Santa bringing a hoverboard? Not on Alaska Air

NPR Planet Money's very own hoverboard. Kristen Clark/NPR
NPR Planet Money’s very own hoverboard. Kristen Clark/NPR

Alaska Airlines joins a growing list of air carriers refusing to transport one of this year’s most sought-after Christmas gifts: the hoverboard.

It’s like a hybrid between a skateboard and a segway. And contrary to what you saw in “Back to the Future II,” today’s hip hoverboards don’t yet actually hover — they roll.

Delta, American Airlines, JetBlue and United are also refusing to fly with hoverborads — not as carry-ons, nor as checked baggage.

The hub-bub stems over the device’s lithium ion batteries, which have spontaneously caught fire a handful of times since the product went public — like in this video at a shopping mall.

In the words of Chris Hjort, Alaska Air’s director of airport policy and procedures: “Here at Alaska, we love technology and we’re always looking for ways to innovate. However, there’s one thing we prioritize above all: safety. We never want to endanger you, your family and friends, or our employees. So we hope you understand when we ask you not to bring your battery-operated self-balancing device on your next flight.”

Lithium ion batteries are a common rechargeable power source for consumer electronics — like laptops and cameras, cellphones… even your super-cool electronic toothbrush. They’re also common in more industrial applications — like the Boeing 737s that caught fire in Japan last year. Or the Tesla cars that were likewise unfavorably flammable.

The hoverboard safety issue is vaguely similar to a number of laptop recalls about 10 years ago. Improvements in manufacturing seemed to work out most the kinks in those cases.

In October the FAA recommended a ban on all cargo shipments of lithium batteries on passenger airlines after testing showed the batteries were more volatile than previously thought.

But before you start sweating the lithium ion batteries in your life, don’t forget that old-fashioned lead-acid batteries (like what’s in your car) also explode from time to time.

For the FAA’s specifics on battery-transporting protocol, see page 11 of their Hazardous Materials Guide.

FAA rules on flying with batteries of all types. In general, spare lithium ion batteries for electronics must go in carry-on luggage.
FAA rules on flying with batteries of all types. In general, spare lithium ion batteries for electronics must go in carry-on luggage.