The phenomenal growth of personal electronic devices powered by lithium-ion batteries continues to pose very real risks to the aviation industry. CAT Magazine and its associated training conferences have provided significant coverage of the subject over the past few years, while the industry continues to grapple with regulatory oversite, mitigations and best practise.
The batteries are ubiquitous, and power virtually every portable device on the market, from cameras and cellphones, to tablets and laptops. Even electric vehicles use them, including the new so-called hover boards. Some airlines are also now offering tablets for in-flight entertainment. Then there are the e-cigarettes, also powered by lithium-ion batteries. Several hundred will be aboard any commercial flight, simply by virtue of the personal devices owned by passengers.
The problem of course is the potential for in-flight fires. So-called “thermal runaway” occurs when a temperature rise near a lithium-ion battery releases energy that causes the temperature to increase further, resulting in a feedback reaction, and a fire and possible explosion. And it’s happened repeatedly. There have been close to 100 incidents over the past decade, including fatalities, on both passenger planes and cargo aircraft.
The FAA has conducted multiple experiments using test aircraft where tablets were stacked in a galley cart and exposed to external hear sources such as a heat plate. Some caught fire and authorities determined that the accumulation of gases in the cart could lead to an explosion. Fires can happen even if a single battery is damaged, such as when a cellphone falls into the seat and is crushed when the seat moves. It happened in 2010 aboard a B777. Many airlines now warn passengers in the pre-flight safety video not to move the seat if they drop their phones.
More recently, in 2015, on a flight that had just landed in Bangkok, smoke and a resulting fire was noticed in passenger baggage in an overhead compartment and extinguished by an alert flight attendant. The culprit was lithium-ion batteries.
It’s the shipment of batteries as cargo that poses the greatest risk. Lithium-metal batteries (single-charge cells used in watches, for example), have already been banned outright as cargo on passenger planes, and an ever-growing list of airlines have moved to ban lithium-ion batteries as cargo on commercial flights. And that’s because of the many incidents and accidents. One of the worst was a B747 freighter flying from Hong Kong that crashed near Dubai in 2010 after an undeclared battery shipment in the cargo hold resulted in an in-flight fire that killed the crew.
There’s no question that the rules concerning the packaging and shipping of lithium ion batteries have become more robust. In the US, new rules went into effect in early 2015, and these will be further enhanced next year. These regulations impact packaging, labeling and documentation, and although there are many responsible and ethical shippers and manufacturers across the globe, it’s extremely difficult to police the ones that are not. And clearly, outright bans on the air shipment of lithium batteries would have enormous economic and logistic consequences.
The largest producer of lithium-ion batteries is China, with many air shipments out of Hong Kong. Some of these manufacturers fail to test, manufacture and label their products to international standards, as they chase the lowest possible selling cost. And it is now known that some manufacturers and shipping agents have intentionally mislabeled their products and/or shipping documents. Thus the issue of greatest concern is non-compliance, resulting in increasing airline reluctance to ship batteries, and negative consequences for the supply chains of companies around the world that are responsible and do follow the rules.
“Ensuring the safe transport of lithium batteries is of particular importance, due to the complex supply chains involved,” IATA Director General Tony Tyler said in Beijing last year. "Disappointingly, we are seeing some wilful non-compliance in the area of lithium batteries, particularly in China," Tyler said.
And of course it doesn’t help when an uninformed celebrity tweets his rage after his son is denied permission to carry his lithium battery-powered hover board on a vacation flight.
CAT Editor in Chief