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Midair firestorm: Lithium-ion batteries in airplane cargo spark fear


The U.S. and United Kingdom bans on personal electronics in the cabin of some flights from the Mideast and Africa have sparked worry about the risk of fires from lithium-ion batteries stored in cargo.


Rechargeable batteries have raised concerns for years because poor packing or manufacturing flaws can occasionally cause catastrophic problems. Storing batteries in cargo raises worry because that’s where a fire could spread unnoticed.


“Any mishap you have in that checked luggage could cause a small fire, but trigger and light up these flammable materials” such as hair spray or nail polish packed in the luggage, said Michael Mo, CEO of KULR Technology, which is developing technology with NASA to prevent lithium batteries from overheating. “A much bigger fire in the cargo space is nothing that anybody wants.”


Incidents of rechargeable battery fires are exceedingly rare, either in aviation or elsewhere. Government security officials said they worked with the Federal Aviation Administration to ensure that electronics and their batteries are packed and shipped safely. The electronics ban applies to non-stop flights of nine airlines from eight countries in the Mideast and Africa.


For example, the FAA guidance discouraged airlines from collecting all electronics in a single bin at an airport gate to be checked, to prevent jostling and avoid damaging batteries.


George Kerchner, executive director of the trade group PRBA – the Rechargeable Battery Association, said international standards for more than a decade have allowed electronics in checked luggage and spare batteries in carry-on bags.


“We’re not aware of any additional risk that this presents,” Kerchner said. “The industry obviously has an outstanding record for safety. There are millions of electronic devices that people use every day and the record reflects that.”


Concerns about lithium batteries typically focus on large-scale shipments aboard cargo planes. Battery shipments were implicated – but not proven as the cause – in fiery crashes of an Asiana Airlines flight near South Korea in 2011, a UPS flight in United Arab Emirates in 2020 and a UPS flight in Philadelphia in 2006.


FAA testing later found that halon gas used to suppress fires on planes doesn’t work well on batteries in a chemical reaction called a thermal-runaway, where temperatures reach 800 degrees Celsius.


A 2015 FAA report found "the uncontrollability of lithium battery fires can ultimately negate the capability of current aircraft cargo fire suppression systems, and can lead to a catastrophic failure of the airframe.”


The International Civil Aviation Organization, a branch of the United Nations that sets non-binding policies for airlines, decided last year to ban bulk shipments of lithium-ion batteries on international passenger flights. On cargo flights, the batteries must be charged to no more than 30%, to reduce the likelihood of fires.


But after the Obama administration sought to adopt the international standard for domestic flights, the Trump administration has frozen the regulation for further review.


On a smaller scale, the Transportation Department banned Samsung Galaxy Note 7 phones from airlines in October after nearly 100 reports of the devices overheating and sometimes injuring owners. The manufacturer halted production of the device after updated versions continued to overheat, following a recall of the first version.


Airlines adopted special gloves and bags to hold overheating phones and smother them of oxygen, thus preventing the spread of a fire.


Incidents involving batteries are exceedingly rare. But the FAA counted 138 aviation incidents involving lithium batteries as cargo or luggage from March 1991 through December 2016, which the agency said might not be a complete list. Incidents included:


  • A fire in the overhead bin of a Delta Air Lines flight from Honolulu to Atlanta on Dec. 3 was traced to a laptop. Three halon extinguishers and two water extinguishers were used to smother the fire.
  • A fire in a checked bag aboard a United Airlines flight from Newark to San Juan on Aug. 13 was blamed on two spare lithium batteries in their charging unit in a checked bag.
  • A Delta flight from Newark to Detroit on Aug. 5 was delayed when a lithium-battery charger in a seatback pocket caught fire, and the passenger extinguished it in the lavatory, which set off the smoke detector. The flight was delayed 34 minutes.

The FAA allows electronics with lithium-ion batteries to fly in checked luggage or carry-on bags. But the FAA restricts spare lithium batteries to carry-on bags because of risk of damage while jostling.


The FAA concern is that loose batteries could short-circuit – causing extreme heat or even a fire – if they come into contact with keys, coins, tools or other batteries. The FAA recommends packing loose batteries in their original packaging or a battery case.


If batteries stay inside the laptop or camera, FAA says another key is to make sure the device is turned off and can’t be turned on accidentally, to prevent overheating.


“The batteries must be protected from damage and short circuit or installed in a device,” the FAA said in its “pack safe” advice for travelers. “Battery-powered devices —particularly those with moving parts or those that could heat up — must be protected from accidental activation.”


Mo, the expert who was attending the International Battery Seminar in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., said he is concerned that rough treatment of checked luggage could damage batteries.


“This is an extremely volatile situation,” Mo said.


But Kerchner, of the battery-industry group, said current regulations ensure that batteries are safe for travel.


“There are adequate safeguards in place to address these concerns that occasionally pop up, like the Samsung recall, for example,” he said.


SOURCE: USA TODAY