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IATA Addresses the Risks of Lithium-Ion Batteries to Aviation

Even as we celebrate the extended use of our Personal Electronic Devices (PEDs) onboard, the risk of fire that the batteries which power those PEDs pose to aviation are not yet fully appreciated by the industry itself and the consumer at large.

At their upcoming Cabin Operations Safety Conference in Madrid, 20-22 May, IATA has made this issue a priority and dedicated a work session to encourage industry discussion on the matter.

IATA Cabin Operations Safety Conference

IATA has now announced the speakers who will address the issues of Lithium-Ion PED batteries:

Dave Brennan, Assistant Director, Cargo Safety and Standards, IATA

Speaking to IATA about the dominant issues the industry faces in allowing Lithium-Ion batteries in the passenger cabin, Brennan said:

“Balancing passenger expectations with airline needs is a key issue.  Passengers expect to be able to bring whatever portable lithium battery-powered device they have available on board.  Airlines need to ensure that aviation remains safe and that portable electronic devices do not put passengers, airline employees (particularly cabin crew) or the aircraft at risk due to an on-board fire.”

Geoff Leach, Former Manager Dangerous Goods at the UK CAA and Founder, The Dangerous Goods Office, Ltd

When asked for his views on the issues in regulating lithium batteries on board, on a global level, Geoff Leach told IATA:

Lithium batteries have become a part of everyday life, powering many devices we have come to rely on.  They have become the batteries of choice because of their small size and large power capacity, enabling our devices to run for hours or even days.  Very stringent construction and testing requirements are prescribed by the United Nations, and lithium batteries which comply are extremely unlikely to cause a problem during transport.  Although incidents where lithium batteries have caught occurred, they have either not been manufactured in accordance with the requirements (e.g. counterfeits) or have not been handled properly (e.g. carried loose in checked baggage, causing them to short circuit.)

In fact, the risks of onboard PED battery fires are not mere conjecture or fear-mongering.  They happen, and that is why this issue requires closer scrutiny.

The BBC first issued a report on this risk on February 4 of this year, in which they studied the issue in-depth and highlighted the actions the UK CAA has taken to raise public awareness.  A video embedded in this report is a dramatic illustration of just what can happen if lithium batteries catch fire.

You can watch a full interview with Geoff Leach, speaking to BBC Breakfast on this topic.  He shares some valuable information and the report really illustrates the issue aviation must contend with:

As Leach points out to IATA, much of the risk onboard is attributable to counterfeit or mishandled batteries, though have been incidents of PEDs crushed by seats which have also resulted in cabin fires.

Mary Kirby, of the Runway Girl Network has dedicated a number of posts to incidents with fires caused by PEDs crushed by seats onboard aircraft damaging the batteries and catching fires.

This March, Mary Kirby invited me to dig further into the science behind the problem in a special report for the Runway Girl Network.

As a result of that report, I have learned that this issue is one in which the device manufacturers must also participate for ultimate resolution.

How device manufacturers and the airline industry can cooperate to minimise the risk, is an issue I am researching in-depth.

Those in the industry involved in Cabin Safety, are encouraged to attend the IATA Cabin Operations Safety Conference to take part in the industry dialogue on a number of critical safety concerns.

Passengers can take immediate action to lessen the risk of a cabin fire caused by their PEDs as follows:

  • Equip your devices with original batteries supplied by the device manufacturer, and ensure that those batteries are in good operating order before travelling with your device.  A device which is not charging as well as it has in the past, or which heats up in use may have a battery which is faulty.  Take it to an authorised service provider as dictated by the device manufacturer for inspection before taking any scheduled flights.
  • Do not try to “save money” by buying off-market batteries from questionable distributors.  Serious injury from Lithium-Ion battery fires has not been limited to the aircraft cabin.  People have had these counterfeit batteries ignite in use and suffered great personal injury as a result.
  • Keep your devices onboard to hand or stored in an appropriate location when they will be unattended during flight.  Aircraft interiors equipment is treated, tested and certified for flammability deterrence, but deterrence will minimise the risk, extinguishing fires sooner, and trying to prevent the rapid spread of fire.  This does not mean that fire does not pose a risk to the cabin all the same.  To help prevent the sorts of incidents Mary Kirby of the Runway Girl Network covered in her reports, here are three simple steps you can take as a passenger to ensure your PED remains safe throughout flight:
  1. Have your devices plugged into any seat power outlets only when you are awake and monitoring them.
  2. Store devices in your jacket pocket, or briefcase, or carry-on bag, and do not leave them loose on your tray table or seat side panel when they are not in use; especially if you will be going to sleep or stepping up out of your seat to walk in the cabin.
  3. Do not pack loose lithium-ion batteries or unprotected electronic devices in your checked baggage.

Beyond preventing a cabin fire, you also reduce the risk of losing your valuable electronic equipment by following these three easy steps; so it’s a win-win for you, your fellow passengers, and the airline.

Fly often.  Fly safe.



Featured Image by Mpt Matthew on Wikimedia Commons is: “A photograph of an Apple iPhone 3GS‘s Lithium-ion polymer battery, which has expanded due to a short circuit failure. The battery is shown in situ on top of the rear phone case; pictured behind is an intact iPhone 3GS for size comparison.”




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