News of the FAA’s ban on use of the Samsung Galaxy Note 7 on aircraft followed shortly after Australian carriers had implemented their own voluntary ban over concerns that some devices have spontaneously ignited.
But while the focus is on problems with the Galaxy Note 7 these incidents are symptomatic of a bigger issue: the inherent violent flammability of Lithium-Ion batteries with which have posed a threat to aviation for years.
The FAA’s ban, though serious, is relatively accommodating to device owners. The ban is limited to the specific model of device currently causing problems.
“In light of recent incidents and concerns raised by Samsung about its Galaxy Note 7 devices, the Federal Aviation Administration strongly advises passengers not to turn on or charge these devices on board aircraft and not to stow them in any checked baggage,” the agency said in its public statement this Thursday.
There have been mixed reactions to this FAA ban, but it’s important to keep in mind that any risks of fire onboard an aircraft must be taken seriously. And though the risks of fire from these devices is relatively small, it has grown large enough to give Samsung pause.
Here’s an example of what an igniting Galaxy Note 7 did to a Jeep in Florida. Just imagine this on a plane.
In fact, there’s no need to imagine such a thing. It has already happened–several times–though not with the Galaxy Note 7. And that’s the problem.
The Galaxy Note 7 is the threat we’re all focusing on today, but the focus is informed by experience with what these all of these devices, powered by these dangerously flammable batteries, can do in aircraft cabins.
Because incidents of aircraft seats catching fire have been few, in the greater context of how many people travel every day carrying electronic devices, the industry has only instituted procedures for managing fires when they happen.
This is a false security.
Onboard fires are dangerous in any circumstances. The volatility and toxicity of these batteries makes the risks to passengers more severe. Crew are trained to deal with these emergencies–but should they have to deal with them? Should passengers be exposed to them?
Far more problematic is the risk of fires in the hold. Passengers are banned from checking any lithium batteries in their luggage–which makes novelty luggage powered by lithium a ridiculous idea–but passengers don’t always heed instructions on carriage of hazardous materials. It only takes one fire. It only takes one passenger plane taken down as a result.
At best, the aviation industry is playing a game of chance because it has no control whatsoever over what materials technology companies choose to use in their manufacturing.
In fact, battery manufacturers and technology companies have been using planes to carry their battery supplies–in bulk–for years. A relatively recent ICAO ban has caused some disruption to this supply, as has those passenger airlines which have voluntarily chosen to refuse these shipments. But suppliers argue that this is all problem of illegitimate manufactures of lithium batteries and that governments should institute safeguards against copycat products. They have lobbied IATA to push for government intervention, which might help lift the ICAO ban in future.
That’s the greatest significance of this Galaxy Note 7 event. Unless Samsung will argue that its supply chain is built on illegitimate “unapproved” battery suppliers, then the claim that only copycat batteries are risky is proven false. We already knew that, but this is the clincher.
Volatile lithium batteries are everywhere, and we’d be foolish to ignore the lessons of history which show that corporations easily talk-down the problems with their choices of raw materials because it is expedient, because they’re already heavily invested in a product and cannot easily swap out.
There are alternative battery compositions which are safer, less volatile, less prone to the thermal runaway which makes lithium-ion batteries used today so very dangerous, but the focus on funding those developments has been insufficient to get them ready for market.
This is another corporate profits gamble–like so many others–played out in the skies and on the ground.
It needs to stop, and no FAA or ICAO ban can do that. It’s up to battery manufacturers and technology companies to recognise the effects of their product choices, and reconsider.