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New mobile device battery rules for airlines are no big deal

The government's new rules for bringing spare batteries on flights won't affect too many road warriors.

As long as road warriors pack carefully, they will suffer few headaches in dealing with the federal government's new rules for carrying spare batteries for mobile devices onto airline flights. Ultimately the rules could have a silver lining.

The U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) announced over the holidays that spare lithium batteries for mobile phones, laptops and other devices are now forbidden from checked luggage.

Loose lithium batteries can short out when their contacts touch metal or other batteries. This poses a fire hazard, so the DOT apparently wants passengers to keep those loose batteries close at hand in their carry-on luggage.

"As a road warrior myself, I definitely have multiple batteries or multiple power supplies," said Avi Greengart, research director for mobile devices at the Washington, D.C.-based research firm Current Analysis Inc. "But my goal is never to check baggage. I try to do everything as a carry-on. This is definitely going to cause people to rethink how they pack."

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As long as users wrap their spare batteries in plastic baggies and pack them in their carry-on luggage, they should be fine. However, the DOT has also imposed a limit on the quantity of lithium that passengers can bring on board planes.

The DOT announced that passengers may carry no more than two spare batteries if those batteries contain more than 8 grams of lithium each. Since the standard batteries for most mobile devices and laptops fall under this threshold, this new limit won't pose a problem for many users.

"However, road warriors with extra-large batteries – my Valence N-charge is over the limit – will need to be aware of the new regulations so they can pack accordingly," Greengart said.

He added that professional video crews, who usually carry heavy spare batteries, will face the biggest challenge with these new rules.

Bill Hughes, principal analyst with In-Stat, of Scottsdale, Ariz., said there could be something of a silver lining in the DOT announcement. He said this could nudge manufacturers to find ways of extending battery life other than simply making bigger, heavier batteries. Manufacturers will look for ways to make their devices more energy efficient.

"I think they [DOT] are being proactive," Hughes said. "The TSA doesn't have to worry about any of the batteries that are on the market today that I know of, but the manufacturers moving forward might try to implement a larger battery to address battery life concerns. They're going to have a problem serving their target market now. There are other solutions for keeping a battery charged, such as fuel cells and hand chargers. This tells them: 'Don't go this way because it will cause problems for your customers.'"

Hughes said battery life remains one of the biggest concerns for users of mobile devices, despite the fact that there are very simple things they can do to make their devices more efficient.

"The biggest battery drain for mobile devices is the backlight for the screen," Hughes said. "The other major battery drain is the Bluetooth radio. Much of the focus is on how to increase the talk time and battery life. But you can extend that through these options. If I'm a road warrior and I want to get maximum battery life, I'll shut down Bluetooth and turn off the backlight. Then I'll be in much better shape."

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