Can you take fountain pens on airplanes? Yes, you can.
However, it is important to understand what is going on with your pen – and the ink within – during flight. This will lead to your taking some basic precautions that will hopefully ensure that there is no risk of an ugly spill from your fountain pen while you are on a flight.
Why Would Fountain Pens Leak on Flights?
Whether your pen leaks or not is dependent on air pressure.
Normal commercial flights do not equalize cabin pressure with the pressure outside till the plane reaches an altitude of around 6000 feet, nor is the pressure equalized while the plane is on its descent.
During takeoff and landing, there is a period of rapid pressure loss around where you are sitting within the cabin and/or in the luggage compartment.
This, in turn, means that your fountain pen ink may act up. This will happen if there is a partially filled ink chamber within the pen. Any air in the ink chamber will remain close to the nib and therefore be prone to bleed out. In particular, if there is air between the nib and where the ink level within the pen is situated, there will be a tendency for the pressure inside (within the pen) and outside (the cabin environment outside the pen) to equalize. This in turn would lead to a tendency for the ink to flow towards the lower pressure air outside.
The reason fountain pens are particularly vulnerable to this phenomenon is simple – fountain pens typically have fine to medium inks with multiple capillaries that the ink can flow out of, and by their very nature, fountain pens frequently use water-based inks that flow more freely than other types of ink, such as the ink used in dot pens.
This means that there are multiple channels for the ink to flow out, and the material itself is free-flowing. Therefore, the chances of spilling out are higher.
There are also certain types of inks that are more likely to spill out than others, for example, archival or gel ink planes,
The Best Ways to Stop a Leak on a Flight
Without a doubt, the best way to stop a fountain pen from leaking on a flight is to simply empty the pen of ink. This could entail removing the ink cartridge or (if you are using bottled ink) draining the pen of ink. Also, make sure you clean the pen out so there are no residuals within the nib or other capillary systems. This is the only way to be 100% sure that there are no accidents.
If the above is not an option, for whatever reason, there are two other possibilities that will greatly reduce the chances of a spill:
- Carry the pen with the nib pointed up at all times – It should make sense that in addition to equalizing pressure inside with what’s outside, the force of gravity has a bearing on whether the ink flows out. With the nib pointed upwards, the pressure (thrust) required to force the ink out would need to be much greater in order for the ink to escape. Thus, the chances of an accident are reduced.
- Make sure that the pen is full of ink, with no empty air spaces. This may be counterintuitive, but it’s the pressure of the air inside, vs. outside, that causes the outthrust and therefore the spill. A pen that is chock full of ink is much less likely to leak then one that has
Using a Pen Mid Flight
Besides the above measures, you should also follow some common-sense guidelines if you are planning to write with your fountain pen while on a flight.
Obviously, the nib will no longer be pointed up. Therefore, the way to avoid leaking is to make sure that you only use the pen when you are in midflight – that is, when the plane has leveled off to a cruising altitude. At this point, the pressures within and outside the pen should be equalized.
To reiterate, do not attempt to use the pen during the first 30 minutes of ascent or after the captain announces that the plane is beginning its descent. These are the times when pressure inequalities are likely to be at their maximum levels.
How to Pack a Pen and Ink
If none of the above suggestions makes you feel safe – and many of us have had bad experiences, so it’s not a concern that is irrational – then one has to think of how to store pens in safe areas and containers.
If you are concerned about leakage, one solution can always be to secure your fountain pen in a Ziploc bag. That way, even if the ink is not completely emptied out, there is no chance of spillage outside the bag.
Ink Bottles Should be Fine
In general, if an ink bottle is not opened exactly when the pressure is fluctuating (that is, when the flight is taking off or landing), the chances are high that the ink will not splay.
Once the top is opened, the pressure within the bottle and inside the plane cabin equalize, so there should not be any spillage of ink while in flight.
Stowing in Luggage
Stowing in luggage is another way of carrying a pen through flight, especially if you do not need to use it over the duration. Similar considerations apply to ensure that there is no spillage – namely, either clean the pen and nib out or put in a container where ink cannot escape during pressure fluctuations.
The Final Word
As the discussion above points out, there is definitely a chance that a fountain pen could leak during a flight. However, a few simple precautions will likely preclude that from happening.
All in all, if your concern is whether you can take fountain pens on an airplane, the answer is definitely yes, especially if you can adhere to a few common-sense principles.