Study finds lithium batteries on planes to be a deadly mix

Lithium batteries

Cabin crew are able to extinguish cabin fires caused by electronic devices, but they can’t enter the cargo hold. Source: Shutterstock

WHEN it comes to flying, personal use electronics have been airlines’ number one public enemy for a long time. 

Anyone who has flown commercially will be familiar with the, “Please switch off all electronics for take-off and landing” announcement, often followed up with a row-by-row, “Sir/madam, you’ll have to switch that off now.”

While using a mobile phone mid-flight has never been proven to cause a plane to crash, these measures are in place to ensure passengers and crew have the safest journey possible.

However, a new research from the US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has shown that lithium-containing electronic devices in checked luggage could potentially bring down a plane.

According to the American Journal of Transportation, if just one personal electronic device stowed in the plane’s cargo hold overheats and catches fire, the flames have the potential to “overpower” the aircraft’s fire suppression system.

Source: Shutterstock

Lithium batteries have been around since 1991 when Japanese electronics company Sony introduced them into commercial industries.

Since then, they have found their way into many commonly used electronic devices such as portable chargers, laptops, and mobile phones.

They’re one of the safest batteries in existence, with over two billion produced every year, but there have been a few known to go into meltdown.

Lithium batteries explode when the internal chemicals heat up and hit temperatures of more than 500 degrees Celsius. If the device is exposed to oxygen, the electrolyte in the battery can ignite and explode causing a fire.

Earlier this year, the ground crew at Salt Lake airport in the US smelled smoke coming from the cargo hold on a Skywest flight. After unloading bags, they discovered a lithium battery had exploded.

In late 2016, Korean electronics manufacturer Samsung had to recall all of the Samsung Note 7 phones as the lithium batteries were exploding all over the place, including on flights.

This led to a total ban of these devices on planes, whether in carry-on bags or checked luggage.

The FAA has always recommended that “spare (uninstalled) lithium ion and lithium metal batteries must be carried in carry-on baggage only.” They must also be kept away from flammable substances such as hairspray and perfume.

Previous tests have proven that cabin crew can usually extinguish cabin fires using water. However, they can’t access the hold during the flight and must rely on the automated fire suppression systems to douse any flames.

However, the FAA’s tests demonstrated that planes’ automated systems couldn’t handle lithium battery fires or prevent the fire from spreading.

“That could then cause an issue that would compromise the aircraft,” US Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration International program coordinator Duane Pfund said while speaking at an aviation safety forum in Washington.

The testings by the FAA last year resulted in the US government lobbying the United Nations International Civil Aviation Organization to ban any electronic devices bigger than a mobile phone from being stored in checked luggage.

But the FAA’s efforts were to no avail and no new restrictions have been enforced on passengers regarding checked luggage.

“One way or another, we have to deal with these hazards,” Air Line Pilots Association’s hazardous goods program director Scott Schwartz said at a safety conference.

Until the international regulation is enforced, airlines and airports will have to make passengers aware of the risk and urge them to remove lithium-containing devices from their checked luggage.