This week federal regulators talked about the startling risks posed to airliners by lithium ion batteries in the cargo holds of airliners. At a public safety forum, regulators said that, contrary to previous assumptions, a laptop battery could catch fire and cause an airliner to crash.
One single battery couldn’t do it alone. Researchers with the FAA found the perfect storm scenario: A battery fire that burns hot enough to compromise other flammable materials like cosmetics or flammable gasses in aerosol cans. The flames could spread, overwhelming the fire suppression systems in airplane cargo holds.
“That could then cause an issue that would compromise the aircraft,” said Duane Pfund, international program coordinator at the U.S. Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, at the public forum.
This is not new information. In November, 2017 the FAA released the results of its investigation into the risk of personal electronics fires. , the researchers found that chain reactions inside a cargo compartment could cause an out-of-control conflagration.
Still, batteries are being loaded into the cargo holds of passenger planes, and no regulations have yet to fully addressed the problem. It's a lack of action that seems to be drawing public statements from the researchers who know it's a potentially deadly problem that's going ignored—at least until the next incident. And there will be one: The FAA reports more than a dozen lithium ion fires every year since 2013, with 31 reported in 2016 and 46 in 2018.
Sure, the FAA has banned packing e-cigarettes or spare batteries in passenger’s checked luggage. These are the most risky batteries in terms of ignitions, but they are not the only concerns. And while airlines have advised passengers not to pack batteries in checked luggage, that falls far short of a ban and is unenforceable.
The United Nations has tried to get involved, with a typically tepid result. The International Civil Aviation Organization banned the shipment of batteries as cargo on passenger planes. (Under the seats of nearly every airliner, whether you know it or not, are pallets of cargo that earn more money for the airlines than passenger tickets.) They also called for a ban on electronic devices larger than a mobile phone in checked bags, but this attempt failed.
The major airline unions, meanwhile, have looked at the problem and basically punted. The Air Line Pilots Association, the largest pilots union in North America, complains about battery risk but hasn’t taken a formal position on a ban.
What little action is taking place is manifesting in an education campaign aimed at passengers, which is questionably useful. Can a flier do anything to stop a battery fire? Yes, technically. The FAA says that laptops should be off, during a flight, since there is standby or sleep mode can overheat the battery. Passengers can also package their laptop to prevent damage that can increase the risk of a fire and keep the laptop from other flammable material.
But the trouble is expecting passengers to abide by these guidelines. Consider that , and 34 percent of these had a round chambered. It may be too much to expect someone packing spare batteries to keep them away from a bottle of hairspray, especially when lives may be at stake.
Why not consider an FAA ban and put safety first? The aviation world got a taste of what would happen in 2017 when after fears that terrorists were designing bombs in their likeness. Laptops are such a common part of the travel experience, especially for the monetarily vital business travelers, that a ban would send them running to airlines without one. This would happen just as Middle Eastern carriers expand into more domestic U.S. markets.
It’s not just the airlines, which are powerful enough on their own, who resist sweeping bans. A lapse in U.S. travel would mean big losses in tourism dollars, and that causes ripple effects in Congress and the White House. Airlines are a major economic driver, and that must be maintained.
But a downed airliner imposes costs, too. It will only take one fatal incident on a passenger plane to cause this issue to resurface in an unavoidable way. Until then, everyone will look the other way, even as the researchers who proved the risk exists bring it up in public. And the fires continue to happen—on August 1, a Ryanair flight from Spain to New York evacuated after a carry on laptop ignited.
Aviation’s stellar safety record depends on learning and adapting to newly discovered threats. When these lessons are ignored, terrible things can happen. And they are more terrible when they are avoidable.