Lithium Batteries

People just aren’t aware of the potential danger with the batteries that they carry around all day in their devices. But passengers can throw these lithium batteries in bags or pack battery-powered devices in their luggage and not recognize that they are volatile compounds—they are actually dangerous goods. The passenger area is an extremely challenging environment for flight and cabin crews to fight a fire, but the cargo hold is far more unforgiving.

Captain, B-767

Lithium batteries power an increasing proliferation of portable consumer electronic devices today. Lithium is the material of choice for batteries, since it provides a lightweight but relatively strong power source, over a longer time frame, than other types of batteries.

There are two types lithium metal batteries and lithium ion batteries.  Both pose a chemical and electrical hazard but lithium-ion batteries have different chemical characteristics.  Lithium batteries are designed with a flammable electrolyte which is easily ignited, and the heat generated from that single cell is transferred to the adjacent cells (a typical laptop contains anywhere between 6 to 12 cells).   

These lithium and lithium-ion batteries are in wide and growing use today, however they also represent a critical safety issue for the global aviation community. These batteries—which are classified as dangerous goods—can end up on an aircraft as cargo, in checked baggage or carried with passengers into the cabin.

Thermal runaway in the passenger cabin – an emergency at 35,000 feet

Lithium batteries can be more volatile than anything currently permitted under dangerous goods rules. Rechargeable lithium-ion batteries can be extremely volatile. They can short-circuit and ignite if:

  • they are damaged,
  • they contain defects,
  • they are packaged/packed incorrectly, or
  • they are exposed to extreme temperatures.

The resulting fires can burn as hot at 1100 degrees, the melting point of aluminum.

While such fires can be managed by immersing the device in water, the volatility and extremely high temperature may make it difficult to manage an overheating device. Rapid intervention by cabin crew and access to water are required to ensure the prompt cooling and/or extinguishing an overheating battery.

Lithium-ion batteries a growing safety concern on aircraft

According to a recent report by the Wall Street Journal, passengers typically carry a number of electronics onto flights including phones, laptops and other devices ranging from chargers to curling irons—items which have already caused onboard fire scares. In the past 25 years, the FAA has recorded 129 incidents involving overheating, fire, smoke or an explosion on planes and in airports, 23 were in 2016. That is up from 16 in 2015 and nine the year before that—more than a third of the total number of incidents across a quarter-century.

This danger has been clearly demonstrated by the recent ban of the Samsung Galaxy Note 7 device aboard all aircraft in Canada and the US, following incidents where these devices started to overheat and produce smoke during flight. While recent events appearing to be limited to this specific device model, all devices powered by lithium batteries pose a safety risk aboard aircraft.

Shipping lithium-ion batteries as cargo – an even greater danger

For the past several years, the greatest concern for the aviation industry has been with lithium battery fires in the cargo hold of an aircraft. Tests by the US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) show that a single damaged or defective battery can cause uncontrolled temperature increases—called thermal runaway—that can spread through an entire shipment. In tests, the overheating batteries have released volatile gases that, when ignited, have exploded with sufficient force to knock the interior panels off cargo compartment walls. The FAA also noted in 2016 that typical fire-suppression systems in cargo holds on commercial aircraft—which use halon gas—are incapable of controlling overheating or preventing explosions caused by lithium batteries held in cargo. The UN’s International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) has also called for a ban on cargo shipments of lithium-ion batteries in passenger aircraft.

There have been a number of aviation incidents/accidents—on both passenger and all-cargo aircraft—related to lithium-ion batteries, including: Northwest Airlines, Los Angeles (1999); UPS, Philadelphia (2006); Fedex, Minneapolis (2009); UPS, Dubai (2010); Austrian Airlines, Toronto (2011); and Asiana, Incheon, Korea (2011).

ACPA’s position:

  • Awareness for all travellers—All air travellers need to be better informed on the dangers of ANY lithium-ion batteries on aircraft. This awareness should not be limited to any specific model or type of device as this can cause passengers to minimize the risks. While the current ban on Samsung Galaxy Note 7 phones is important and well publicized, ACPA believes that Transport Canada and airlines must continue to raise awareness of the risks of thermal runaway posed by lithium-ion batteries on all portable electronic devices, to ensure that they are never placed in checked baggage where fire suppression would be nearly impossible.
  • Proper equipment aboard aircraft—Given the significant risks posted by smoke or fire aboard an aircraft, ACPA strongly advocates for Air Canada and Air Canada rouge to equip all aircraft in its fleet with fireproof containment bags. Immediate priority should be given to equip all aircraft. Further, both fire containment bags and the appropriate fire-resistant tool to handle an overheating device should immediately be identified as part of an aircraft’s Minimum Equipment List (MEL) – that is, as necessary equipment without which an aircraft cannot depart.
  • Proper training for crews—ACPA strongly supports the initiatives taken to date by Air Canada to ensure increased training for both pilots and in-flight service crews to ensure proper emergency procedures are in place aboard aircraft in case of smoke or fire from a portable electronic device.
  • No lithium-ion batteries or devices carried in the cargo hold of an aircraft—Given the inability to suppress lithium-ion battery fires in a cargo hold, ACPA strongly believes that, regardless of the shipper, cargo shipments of either lithium-ion batteries, or devices powered by lithium-ion batteries, should NOT be accepted aboard passenger aircraft.


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