Portable Electronic Devices Are Safer in Cabin Compared to Cargo Hold
The FAA has long been concerned about the potential hazards of lithium batteries. That level of concern is justified with new test results illustrating the real dangers posed to pilots, crew and passengers.
Rechargeable lithium batteries are used in cellphones, laptops and electric cars. Manufacturers like them because they pack more energy into smaller packages. However, the batteries can self-ignite if they are damaged, exposed to heat, overcharged or packed too closely together.
In late 2017, in a filing with the International Civil Aviation Organization, the FAA says that the lithium batteries in laptops can overheat and create fires. The agency’s Office of Hazardous Materials Safety says that portable electronic devices pose less of a fire threat when carried on-board instead of being packed into checked bags.
When laptops or other electronic devices containing lithium batteries are in the passenger cabin instead of the cargo hold, the flight crew or passengers have a chance at putting out a fire sparked by the batteries in an electronic device.
FAA Lithium Battery Test Results
Since 2006, three cargo jets have been destroyed and four pilots killed by in-flight fires that investigators say were either started by batteries or made more severe by their proximity.
FAA tests have shown that when a single battery overheats, it can cause other nearby batteries to overheat as well. That can result in intense fires and the release of explosive gases and poses an elevated risk to airlines shipping large quantities of batteries as cargo.
Recent test results have led to the increased danger warnings. In one test, an 8-ounce aerosol can of dry shampoo — which is permitted in checked baggage — was strapped to a laptop. There was a fire almost immediately and it grew rapidly. The aerosol can exploded within 40 seconds.
In other tests, a fully-charged laptop packed in a suitcase with a heater placed against the laptop’s battery to force it into “thermal runaway,” a condition in which the battery’s temperature continually rises. The test showed that because of the rapid progression of the fire, Halon gas fire suppressant systems used in airline cargo compartments would be unable to put out the fire before there was an explosion, the FAA said. The explosion might not be strong enough to structurally damage the plane, but it could damage the cargo compartment and allow the Halon to escape, the agency said. Then there would be nothing to prevent the fire from spreading.
Other tests of laptop batteries packed with potentially dangerous consumer goods that are permitted in checked baggage like nail polish remover, hand sanitizer and rubbing alcohol also resulted in large fires, although no explosions.
As a result, the agency recommends that passengers shouldn’t be allowed to pack large electronic devices in baggage unless they have specific approval from the airline.
In fact, the agency says that if devices are packed in bags that will go in the cargo hold of flights, they “should be completely powered down to the OFF position (they should not be left in sleep mode), protected from accidental activation, and packed so they are protected from damage.”
Penalties for Lithium Batteries
In recent months, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has proposed or levied substantial penalties on a number of airlines:
- a $1.1 million civil penalty against Braille Battery, Inc. of Sarasota, Fla., for allegedly violating the Hazardous Materials Regulations. This is the largest civil penalty the FAA has proposed for alleged violations of the requirements for offering an air shipment of lithium batteries.
- a $63,750 civil penalty against J&J Tech Group of Miami for allegedly violating federal hazardous materials transportation rule, where two passengers affiliated with the company, who were flying on board an American Airlines flight from Miami to Buenos Aires, offered three checked bags containing 318 lithium ion batteries, as well as 85 cell phones and 11 laptop computers that contained lithium ion batteries. The shipment was not accompanied by a shipper’s declaration of dangerous goods and was not properly packaged for shipping by air transport.
For Part 135 and 121 Carriers
All FAR Part 135 and Part 121 carriers must be classified as Will Carry or Will Not Carry operators and complete initial and recurrent training for hazardous materials.
All hazardous materials must be properly labeled, packaged and stored, be recognized by pilots and require special handling. Will Carry operators are audited annually to ensure they follow proper acceptance, loading and documentation. Pilots can be ramp checked for proper loading of hazardous materials.
The growing danger with lithium batteries highlights the importance of completing recurrent training – with updated content.
Will Not Carry operators and pilots, although not transporting hazardous materials, must still be able to recognize hazardous materials, packaging, and labels to ensure they are not loaded on company aircraft.
Typically, problems arise from materials that people don’t know about, or those camouflaged by generic packaging. The only way to understand how to look for these sorts of problematic materials is through training.
TrainingBoom takes hazardous materials training seriously and is on the forefront of training for this challenge. Our extensive knowledge of hazardous materials derives from our long careers at FedEx, one of the largest carriers of hazardous materials in the world. We include it in all of our FAR Part 135 and Part 121 initial and recurrent training.