“Houston, we have a problem.” And it is in the form of lithium-ion batteries for airlines in passenger cabins and cargo holds.
This is troublesome because our entire world seems to be energized by lithium-ion batteries. They drive the lives of our cellphones, laptops, cameras, ipods and MP3 players, flashlights and a number of other portable electronic devices.
What’s the big deal we ask. We’re talking spontaneous combustion. “When a lithium battery short-circuits or overheats, it can catch fire or explode. The fire it causes may not be as easy to extinguish as a normal combustion fire.”
FAA data show that from March 20, 1991, through Aug. 3, 2010, batteries and battery-powered devices were involved in 113 incidents with "smoke, fire, extreme heat or explosion" on passenger and cargo planes. The data are for lithium and non-lithium batteries and are not a complete list of such incidents, the agency says.Since April 1999 the FAA has received reports of 40 fires involving lithium batteries and devices. Here are a few of the most recent incidents:
In January, the Transportation Department proposed stricter rules for companies that ship lithium batteries in cargo holds. "The frequency of incidents, combined with the difficulty in extinguishing lithium-battery fires, warrants taking strong action," Rep. Jerry Costello, D-Ill., chairman of the House aviation subcommittee, said of the Transportation Department's proposal.
Lithium-battery experts, security analysts and flight attendants wonder, though, if stricter rules are also needed in airline passenger cabins to prevent fires or worse: a possible attempt by a terrorist to bring down a plane by rigging a large number of batteries together to start a fire. USA Today
•On Sept. 9, 2009, a battery owned by American Airlines for use by passengers dropped during a flight and caught fire.Passengers are not allowed to put spare lithium-ion batteries in checked bags. “They can, however, put them in checked bags if they are attached to an electronic device.”
•On Aug. 8, 2008, a passenger on an American flight from Washington to Dallas noticed his laptop was smoking. The passenger removed the battery pack and gave it to a flight attendant. The flight attendant placed the battery in a coffee pot in the aft gallery and poured water and Sprite on it.
•On March 4, 2008, a passenger's video display device for viewing entertainment systems emitted a "10-inch plume of sparks and debris" on a United Airlines flight from Chicago to Tokyo. The captain doused the device with water. A small area of the carpet in the passenger cabin was damaged.