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1/17/2008
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Airline Passengers Can Bring Batteries Aboard, After All

A Transportation Department administrator clarifies the Jan. 1 regulation regarding loose lithium batteries, developed to lessen the risk of airplane fires.

On Jan. 1, the U.S. Transportation Department's Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration passed a regulation regarding loose lithium batteries in luggage on airplanes, causing a lot of confusion among travelers. InformationWeek recently interviewed Bob Richard, the administration's deputy assistant administrator, who set the record straight on what's allowed and what isn't.

The new regulation went into effect this month in order to lessen the risk of short-circuit fires on airplanes caused by certain types of batteries. When metals like keys, coins, and other batteries come in contact with both terminals of another battery, they can create a path for electricity and cause a spark, leading to a fire, according to the Hazardous Materials Safety Administration.

The administration is treating lithium batteries as hazardous materials since they're known for overheating and catching fire in some conditions. Tests conducted by the Federal Aviation Administration show that aircraft cargo fire suppression systems on airplanes are incapable of containing such fires.

"We've subjected batteries to really rigorous tests both internationally and locally. The test simulated worst-case conditions. But it's not just what-if scenarios we're dealing with. We're reacting to real-life situations where we've already had several incidents," said Richard, who is in charge of developing hazardous materials safety regulations.

One such incident, he said, happened on a JetBlue flight departing from New York with a film crew on board. The crew had a bag full of unprotected lithium batteries rubbing against each other in a carrying case. One of the batteries short circuited and caused other batteries to catch on fire.

"There was a pretty violent fire in an overhead compartment of the aircraft and luckily the flight crew was able to extinguish it, but it wasn't easy since these lithium battery fires are not very easy to put out," said Richard.

Another incident took place in February 2006 when a cargo plane operated by United Parcel Service became engulfed in flames and was significantly damaged. Lithium ion batteries are suspected as the cause of the fire.

InformationWeek originally reported that as part of the regulation, only two spare rechargeable lithium batteries per passenger would be allowed on airplanes in carry-on bags. Richard said that is not the case.

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