Was this passenger removed from the airport because of a battery?

Diana Lawson, 60, a self-professed “knitting grandma,” recently traveled to Lubbock, Texas, with power tools in her luggage. On her return flight, she was denied boarding and removed from the airport by two police officers and two American Airlines employees. She flew a different airline the following day and wants compensation from American.

But Lawson’s version of what led to her removal is different from American’s, and her entitlement to compensation is in question. This is a cautionary tale about knowing both flight packing rules and what not to say when airline employees ask safety questions.

After more than a day working on “a low-voltage cabling job,” Lawson simply wanted to return home to Phoenix. When she arrived at the airport to check in for her flight, the American Airlines employee asked the standard security questions, including whether or not she had packed any lithium batteries in her checked bag.

I’ll let Lawson tell her version of the exchange:

I was either asked or volunteered (I don’t remember which) that I was carrying a drill with a lithium ion battery. I was asked to remove the battery from the drill and put it in my backpack. I mentioned this was different from the last time I traveled and the last time my husband traveled, both on America West flights from Phoenix to Lubbock for work with the same drill.

The representative then told me [the] prior agents were wrong, and it was dangerous to travel with the battery in my luggage and I should be sure to never do it again. I told her I would continue checking baggage, doing whatever I was told to do, but wasn’t going to volunteer to remove my battery if I wasn’t asked.

[Note: If Lawson flew on America West, she must have done so before 2005, when that airline merged with US Airways. That was well before there were regulations governing lithium batteries in checked luggage.]

The exchange apparently continued, with the check-in agent informing Lawson that the “fine print” on the ticket she purchased indicated that the batteries can explode in the luggage compartment. That might have been the end of it, but Lawson had to be sure the agent knew she was unhappy:

I felt she was completely insincere when, after her lecture, she said “have a nice day” so I responded with something along the lines of next time say it like you mean it.

Lawson proceeded to the gate area to wait for her flight to board, but she wasn’t going anywhere that day. The gate agent paged her, and she approached the desk where two other gentlemen also stood. One of the men said she was paged because of her luggage. Lawson claims she thought the men were talking about the tools in her luggage and stated her reason for flying to Lubbock. The agent corrected her assumption, stating that they were “far more interested in her battery and her attitude toward airline safety.”

One of these agents claimed that Lawson told the agent at check-in that she didn’t care where her batteries were packed, and he commented that they could remove her from her flight if she didn’t care about airline safety. Lawson thought this wasn’t a possibility and says that she told the agent that she said she didn’t care because she was just going to do whatever they told her. Lawson further claims that the agent told her he was “typing bad stuff about [her] into the computer.” She says she decided not to say anything more because “way too many people are escalating airline incidents” and she just wanted to get home.

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After returning to her seat in the boarding area, she was approached by two of the men who were at the desk — and two police officers. Lawson was informed that she was being denied boarding and was escorted from the airport by the police officers.

She says she sat outside the airport for awhile and cried. She decided that American had treated her this way because she was dirty and disheveled, and that if she had been clean and her hair looked nice this wouldn’t have happened. Then she summoned an Uber, bought some clothes because she had none with her, found a hotel, and spent the night in Lubbock. The next day she flew Southwest back to Phoenix — apparently with no trouble.

Lawson wrote to American Airlines, requesting compensation in the amount of $1,200, which she says includes her original ticket, her hotel expenses, the cost of her Uber ride from the airport to the hotel and back, and the cost of the clothes she had to purchase. She told American that its staff “bullied a 60-year old grandmother off a plane just because they are in a position of power and can.”

The company responded, denying her request for compensation. It told her that it had reviewed her case and noted that the station manager documented that Lawson said she “did not care about the safety of the airplane.” She disagreed with their claim and asked to escalate her appeal, but the airline still denied her request.

Lawson apparently thought threats would help her get what she wanted:

I will be escalating this outside of this conversation thread. Because someone lies (your employees, not mine) is not a valid reason to remove me from a flight and cause me financial hardship.

I am the furthest thing from the type of person who would create a scene; this is why I didn’t argue further with the ticketing agent who was clearly in the wrong as to her knowledge of what can and cannot be checked in luggage. Her ignorance probably led to her lying which led to my inconvenience. I am pretty sure you can’t just make stuff up, which appears to be the case here, and they say oh well you are dangerous. Seriously? I am a 60-year old grandmother who knits for a hobby.

Everyone I share this story with laughs at the ridiculousness of it (after giving me proper hugs, of course). If I were to have my lawyer reach out to someone, what department would that be? And if I were to reach out to a newscaster, who would I have them contact to provide further details?

As we’ve said before, threats of legal action, bad publicity or bad online reviews are not the best approach to getting a refund or compensation from a company. If you think you have a good legal case, it is absolutely your right to contact an attorney, but companies frequently hear these threats from consumers. It doesn’t help your case, and once you’ve uttered the words “my attorney,” many companies will cease negotiations with you in favor of allowing attorneys to work it out.

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Lawson could have escalated her case to the American Airlines executives we list on our site. Instead, she reached out to us, and we contacted American on her behalf.

It seems that this case started with the question of whether the batteries Lawson carried were allowed to be packed in her checked luggage. This is what TSA Travel Tips has to say about batteries:

Most batteries for consumer electronics are allowed in carry-on luggage. Dry cell alkaline batteries, Nickel Metal Hydride (NiMH) and Nickel Cadmium (NiCad); typical AA, AAA, C, D, 9-volt, button sized, etc. (both single use and rechargeable varieties) are allowed. Consumer sized lithium ion batteries (under 100 watt hours per battery) and up to two larger lithium ion batteries (such as extended life laptop batteries) may be carried on in their device.

However, loose lithium batteries are not permitted in checked bags and MUST be carried on with you. Car batteries, wet batteries, or any other spillable batteries not allowed in either carry-on and checked baggage (unless they are being used to power a wheelchair).

The American Airlines list of restricted items is similar:

Please remove batteries from devices in your checked bags and put them in your carry-on in separate plastic bags.

Lithium-ion battery acceptance by Watt-hour (Wh):

  • Less than 100 Wh – Unlimited quantity in carry-on baggage
  • 100 – 160 Wh – 2 spares in carry-on baggage
  • 160 – 300 Wh – Contact Special Assistance

The ability to check the batteries that Lawson was carrying probably hinges on the Watt-hour capacity of her batteries. There is no evidence from either side of this dispute that the question of capacity was ever raised. Would Lawson have known the answer to that question? Perhaps. I believe it is unreasonable to expect airline gate agents to know exactly which batteries, of all those on the market, are acceptable.

It’s also evident that airlines and the TSA are able to alter rules as needed, since the recent problem with the Samsung batteries is not listed on the TSA Travel Tips site, even though those specific batteries are still banned from airlines. So the best course of action is always to do as asked, without argument. I am certainly not suggesting that you should not respectfully question a rule. But you should carry the rules with you, along with proof that your batteries do not violate the TSA rules. Arguing, implying that you don’t care about the rules or airline safety, or responding to airline personnel with comments like, “say it like you mean it,” may not end with you boarding your scheduled flight.

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When American Airlines responded to our advocacy team, it referred us to another helpful site for information on what is restricted from being carried in checked and carry-on baggage: the FAA’s Pack Safe site.

American documented that Lawson was asked if she had “spare lithium batteries in her bag” and she answered yes. She then “got angry that we were making her remove the item from her checked bag.” Our contact also added a piece of the puzzle that was not included in Lawson’s account. American contends that the gate agent’s questions about whether or not Lawson was concerned about airline safety were in response to a comment that “she would continue to check her bag without notifying the airline regarding the battery.”

While Lawson says she never said that she does not care about this policy or the safety of the aircraft, American is sticking to its story and insisting that she did. Lawson admits that she was tired, and initially mentioned that she didn’t remember whether the airline asked about the batteries or if she volunteered the information. So is it possible that she didn’t realize how her comments were interpreted by the airline? Sure. But her openly admitting that she told the check-in agent to “act like you mean it next time,” makes me wonder.

The best course of action would have been to accept the decision of the check-in agent and question the policy, with supporting documentation, after the flight with American’s corporate office. Had she done this, she would have gotten home on time, and if she’s correct about the batteries, probably would have received a more positive response from American (and possibly some miles or some other type of compensation).

American Airlines automatically refunded $353 for Lawson’s ticket costs, including the flight, plus seat and luggage fees, even though Lawson never officially applied for the refund. When our advocates told her that we agreed that she was not entitled to additional compensation, she again explained to us the difference between her batteries and the batteries that cannot be checked with an airline.

Like the gate agents, we’re not battery experts either, and can only reference the available information from TSA and the FAA, and the best advice I saw in my research was in bold on the FAA’s Pack Safe page: “When in doubt, leave it out!”

We still believe the refund of her original ticket is the best Lawson can do. What do you think, readers?

Should American have compensated Lawson for the other costs she requested?

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Michelle Bell

Michelle worked in the travel and hospitality industry for almost two decades. Born in Germany, she has lived in 15 states and two foreign countries, and traveled to more than 35 countries. After living and working in Southeast Asia for several years, she now resides in New Orleans. Read more of Michelle Bell's articles here.

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