The subject of fires caused by lithium-ion batteries took on urgent new meaning following two thermal runaway incidents with lithium-ion batteries installed in Boeing’s 787 Dreamliner. A lot of information—and misinformation—surrounds lithium-ion technology, and experts from all over are weighing in with their opinions.
One oft-cited source of information is the FAA’s list of “Aviation Incidents Involving Smoke, Fire, Extreme Heat or Explosion.” The list consolidates information about 132 incidents with “battery-powered devices” that occurred between March 20, 1991 and Oct. 9, 2012. The FAA acknowledges that the list “should not be considered as a complete listing of all such incidents. The incident summaries included here are intended to be brief and objective. They do not represent all information the FAA has collected, nor do they include all investigative or enforcement actions taken.”
So what does this summary really show? Are lithium-ion batteries too dangerous to fly? And where is the highest risk, in the cargo compartment or with the many lithium-powered devices carried by passengers and pilots?
Note that this list does not include only lithium-ion battery incidents; all battery types are covered. And the title is a little misleading, because many of the incidents involve cargo carriage of pallets of batteries that aren’t installed in any device.
The majority of these incidents, 86, involved cargo shipments both on and off the aircraft. Clearly, the highest risk involving batteries and aircraft is shipment via air. There are many cases of fires happening before and after unloading, and it seems amazing that there haven't been more cargo crashes involving batteries catching fire. Thankfully there are new rules governing cargo carriage of lithium-ion batteries.
The next highest category is also of concern, batteries in devices carried by passengers and crew onboard the aircraft, which accounted for 21 incidents. Surprisingly few of these involved mobile computing devices.
Batteries in checked luggage caused fires, often because passengers just threw batteries into bags without protecting the terminals. Not a good idea. This category included 11 incidents at airports and five with checked luggage onboard the aircraft.
Nine incidents occurred in devices at the airport, which is good from one perspective, because the devices caught fire or got really hot before getting on an airplane.
Of the 132 incidents, 62 were specified as involving lithium-ion batteries. In a handful of cases, the battery type wasn’t identified, but the others involved lead-acid, ordinary dry cells, nickel cadmium and nickel-metal hydride types.
Some of the incidents were caused by extremely poor judgment, such as the passenger who felt compelled to transport a motorcycle battery next to a gasoline container onboard the aircraft. The resulting fire destroyed the airplane and critically injured 14 passengers.
Surprisingly, only two laptop fires occurred on aircraft during flight. What seems to be missing from this list is any fires involving cellphones, tablet computers or other portable devices. There was one incident where an MP3 player got very hot, but it didn’t catch fire.
Many thousands of aircraft fly every day with passengers carrying and using lithium-battery-powered devices. This incident list doesn’t identify these devices as posing a significant problem, although this list should be a wake-up call for any company that carries cargo.