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Hey, Buddy, Got a Light? Apparently, Congress Does

Would-be hipsters and memorabilia mavens can relax: You can once again pack Zippo lighters in your airline luggage, as long as they’re empty.

The change was made possible by a brisk and successful lobbying effort by the lighters’ manufacturer, who last month convinced federal agencies to end a ban on certain lighters in checked baggage.

The prohibition was only in effect for a month before the company, based in north central Pennsylvania, managed to amend it with a one-two punch: help from the Washington lobbying firm Williams and Jensen and from home-state Republican Sens. Arlen Specter and Rick Santorum and Rep. John Peterson (R-Pa.).

Zippo’s sleek products, long a status symbol and an icon of American style, got tripped up by national security concerns earlier this year.

Spooked by terrorist Richard Reid’s failed attempt to ignite bombs in his shoes aboard a trans-Atlantic flight, Congress voted in December to forbid airline passengers from carrying lighters aboard their flights as part of an intelligence reform bill.

Zippo and the rest of the lighter industry backed that change. But coupled with a decades-old ban on lighters in checked bags, it would have hamstrung enthusiasts’ ability to transport their collections.

For Zippo, the rule could have been disastrous. Since so much of the company’s business relies on souvenir sales to traveling collectors and dealers, they estimated the ban would cut their sales by 30 percent.

In March, the company hired Williams and Jensen, a firm that executives know from its work on consumer product safety issues for the industry trade association, the Lighter Association Inc.

Lobbyists for the firm worked with the company to generate mail to Santorum, Specter and Peterson. Once the Members were looped in, they petitioned the TSA and the Department of Transportation.

In a letter dated April 14 — the day the rule change went into effect — the Senators wrote TSA assistant secretary David Stone, asking for at least a delay before the rule went into effect.

“The company has already lost over $3 million in cancelled orders due to TSA regulations,” they wrote.

The TSA did not grant the extension, but in subsequent meetings, the coalition of Pennsylvania Members, company representatives and Williams and Jensen lobbyists convinced federal transportation officials that unfilled lighters posed zero safety or security risk.

“It just made no sense,” said Peterson, whose district is home to the 800-worker Zippo factory. “An unfilled lighter is just a piece of metal with a piece of cotton in it.”

The TSA made the change quietly, posting the news May 16 on its Web site as a footnote to updated rules.

Santorum, in a release that day, trumpeted the agency’s move.

“Effective today, the TSA will allow airline passengers to pack cigarette lighters without fuel in checked baggage,” he said in the statement. “Prohibiting empty lighters on flights would have directly impacted a major manufacturer and employer in my home state. … Many people purchase these signature lighters as souvenirs and gifts for friends and family while on vacation or traveling.”

Santorum toured the Zippo plant Friday to “deliver the good news to those employees that their jobs would not be lost due to burdensome TSA regulations,” a spokesman for the Senator said.

For the company, however, the fight is not over.

Zippo wants to find an acceptable way to package filled lighters so they can be packed in checked luggage. And they want to see a lifting of the ban on lighters being taken past airport security checkpoints. This would allow them to be sold in duty free shops, a Williams and Jensen lobbyist said.

David Baker, general counsel for the Lighter Association, said that so far, the industry is encouraged by the federal agencies’ accommodation.

“We understand this wasn’t raised against us,” he said of the new rules. “And they’ve been very appropriately interested in the concerns we’ve raised.”

The most satisfied with the rules change may be collectors, some of whom were preparing to reorganize their conventions to adjust to the new federal demands.

“Some people who have extremely high-dollar lighters … are not willing to entrust their expensive lighters to any carrier but the one they’re on,” said Judith Sanders, chairwoman of a collector’s club called On the Lighter Side.

Sanders, who owns upwards of 4,000 lighters, is now busy planning a convention set for next week outside Chicago.

Fortunately for collectors, she said, the rule was overturned so quickly that it proved to be barely a logistical hiccup. But to be sure that TSA agents don’t hassle convention-goers — some from as far away as Italy and Japan — Sanders is advising them to bring TSA’s updated rules with them when they travel.

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