Lithium batteries can be found in a myriad of everyday items, from pacemakers, watches, digital clocks and cameras to hoverboards and automobiles. Higher in voltage than their alkaline counterparts, lithium batteries are well-known for their much longer life, a plus in terms of frequency of replacement.

On February 9, 2016, the Federal Aviation Administration issued an update entitled “FAA Urges Airlines to Assess Lithium Battery Risks.” The update centered around the “potential risk of a catastrophic aircraft loss due to damage resulting from a lithium battery fire or explosion.” The update and referenced Safety Alert For Operators (SAFO) concern transporting lithium batteries as cargo in the cargo hold of commercial aircraft.

If lithium batteries are commonly used in consumer products, what’s so dangerous?

Because of the flammable chemical components contained in lithium-metal and lithium-ion batteries, even one battery experiencing an internal “short” has the potential to start a “thermal runaway,” subsequently spreading to other batteries or cells in the package. An internal short can be caused by the battery being damaged during handling, a manufacturing contaminant, or extreme heat. In a setting in which lithium batteries are being transported as cargo, in bulk, there is certainly a potential for dangerous conditions.

The FAA Tech Center’s 2015 testing determined that a lithium battery fire’s unburned flammable gases have the potential to initiate a “Catastrophic explosion” that could not be prevented by current fire suppression systems in passenger airline Class C cargo compartments.

What are the airlines doing?

Existing regulations prohibit the transport of lithium-metal batteries in passenger flight cargo holds. Some airlines are voluntarily declining to transport lithium-iodide battery cargoes on passenger flights as well. The FAA hasstrongly cautioned airlines to reassess the risks of transporting any lithium batteries at all, whether lithium-metal or lithium-ion, on passenger or cargo flights.

What does that mean to travelers?

It is important to note that the safety alert was issued for batteries being transported as cargo, not batteries that are packaged with or installed in equipment. The U.S. Department of Transportation provides guidance to travelers on their “Traveling with Lithium Batteries” web page.

According to their site, “you may bring your laptop computer, cell phone, camera, personal digital assistant, or other battery-powered devices as these items are still safe to fly!”

Preventative safety measuresto take:

  • Spare batteries for those items must be packed in carry-on luggage and all items must be protected from accidental activation. Steps you cant take when packing:
  • Pack items in individual cases to prevent switches from being moved during transport.
  • Tape switched into the off position if applicable.
  • Tape over battery terminals on batteries
  • Remove batteries, wrap individually to prevent damage and place in carry-on luggage away from other batteries, metal objects, or items that could initiate a spark.
  • Check the chart on the Department of Transportation's website to confirm that your battery can fly safely.

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