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Lithium-Ion Batteries: Fire in the Sky?

GettyImages-491064179-440x443Every commercial airline flight carries scores of lithium-ion powered batteries in phones, tablets, computers, activity trackers, cameras, headphones and other devices. Consumers need to respect the risks that are associated with these products if not used, stored or charged correctly. Battery manufacturers and the manufacturers of products containing them must be ready to respond to all claimed incidents.

At nearly every airport gate I have entered over the past two years, there inevitably has been an announcement made that the flight is full, overhead space is running out and there is a need for volunteers to check their baggage. The gate agents would then advise flyers to take keys, medications and valuables out of checked bags. While they would also warn flyers to take spare lithium-ion batteries out of checked bags, this announcement always seemed to get drowned out by airport noise. In fact, it is a Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) regulation that spare lithium-ion batteries for consumer products must be removed from checked baggage and kept with the passenger in the aircraft cabin with the battery terminals protected from short circuit.

The FAA reports that one lithium-ion battery “incident” occurs every ten days on airplanes and at airports. In November 2017, panic ensued at Orlando International Airport when a camera’s lithium-ion battery exploded at a security checkpoint, causing a terminal to be evacuated. More recently, a portable power-pack charger in a carry-on bag went into “thermal runaway” in an overhead storage bin on a China Southern Airlines flight during boarding, causing a small fire.

While in the airport, consumers are always looking for open outlets in which to charge their lithium-ion battery powered devices. These outlets can be difficult to find. Luggage manufacturers filled this consumer-driven need by introducing “smart luggage” – baggage equipped with lithium-ion battery packs connected to convenient charging ports.  The major U.S. airlines, however, recently announced that “smart luggage” cannot be checked if the internal battery packs are non-removable.

The FAA has also promulgated regulations barring recalled consumer products containing lithium-ion batteries from commercial flights. The major objective of these policies and regulations is to reduce the likelihood of a fire in an airplane. An uncontrolled fire occurring anywhere is an emergency situation; an uncontrolled fire occurring in a sealed aluminum tube traveling 500 miles per hour seven miles above ground is a potential mass casualty event.

Fires in airplane cargo holds have resulted in catastrophes, including that associated with ValueJet Flight 592 in 1996. Since then, the FAA, airlines and airplane manufacturers have implemented policies and procedures and developed safety systems to reduce the likelihood of uncontrolled cargo hold fires. A fire in an airplane cargo hold presents many more challenges than one in a passenger compartment where passengers and crew can use their senses to detect the early stages of a fire and respond accordingly to extinguish it.  Pilots must rely on sensors to detect the early stages of a fire in a cargo hold, and must activate fire suppression systems (if installed) to extinguish cargo hold fires or perform maneuvers to starve the fire of oxygen, such as increasing altitude.

In 2010, a UPS cargo plane crashed in the United Arab Emirates because of a fire in the cargo hold. The fire is believed to have been caused by a shipment of lithium-ion batteries. Investigation revealed that the on-board smoke detection system took too long to activate and did not alert the two crew members in time. The fire disabled various systems on the plane, including the oxygen supply.  Smoke filled the cockpit within three minutes of alarm activation and the two pilots died. Related announcements, policies and regulations are designed to prevent similar scenarios with far more profound consequences in commercial airliners.

As earlier mentioned, the likelihood of a battery failure is rare – and statistically, commercial airline travel is one of the safest means of travel when comparing deaths versus passenger miles traveled. Hundreds, if not thousands, of lithium-ion battery powered devices are on each commercial airline flight in phones, tablets, computers, activity trackers, cameras and headphones. Consumers, however, must realize and respect the risks that are associated with these products if not used, stored or charged correctly. Battery manufacturers, and the manufacturers of products containing batteries, must be ready to respond to all claimed incidents.

This blog post was published originally on March 27, 2018.