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10/27/2009
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Lithium Batteries On The Hot Seat Over Airline Fires

The mantra for today's portable device batteries is "better, stronger and longer." When they take to the sky, however, "snap, crackle, pop!" might be more appropriate.

The mantra for today's portable device batteries is "better, stronger and longer." When they take to the sky, however, "snap, crackle, pop!" might be more appropriate.According to an article in yesterday's New York Times, fires on airplanes involving portable devices are now far more common than they used to be: With more people traveling with an assortment of portable electronics  sometimes a plane has more devices than passengers  fires are occurring on airliners with increasing frequency. More than half of the 22 battery fires in the cabin of passenger planes since 1999 have been in the last three years. One air safety expert suggested that these devices might be the last unrestricted fire hazard people can bring on airplanes. The chief culprit appears to be rechargeable lithium batteries. According to U.S. government regulations, these qualify as hazardous materials. Yet airline passengers haul thousands of the things onto planes every day.

Statistically, the risks are still minimal. Even today, according to the Times article, fires involving batteries occur an average of once every four months. Since there are nearly 30,000 commercial flights per day over the United States, and since none of these fires has resulted in a death or serious injury, you're still more likely to choke to death on a chicken bone -- if you're a vegetarian.

On the other hand, the number of battery-powered devices continues to skyrocket. And hardware manufacturers are under a lot of pressure to extend battery life as long as possible. The fact that 400,000 portable device batteries have been recalled so far this year alone suggests that some companies may be pushing the performance limits a bit too hard.

But let's face it. People are going to travel with portable devices. They want them, and in many cases they need them. Anyone who begs to differ just crawled out from under a rock.

As usual, common sense can be a powerful -- if sometimes elusive -- ally. The U.S. Department of Transportation has published rules for travelers carrying lithium batteries. It's verboten, for example, to carry spare batteries in your checked luggage (although it's still OK to check devices with the batteries still installed).

The Times article also notes that storing battery-powered devices in an overhead bin may cause problems. A bumpy flight could damage the device, and a fire might go unnoticed until it causes serious problems.

So the odds of your flight going down in flames due to a misbehaving battery are pretty long. But they'll be even longer if people avoid treating lithium batteries as if they are all perfectly safe and practically indestructible. They aren't -- and nobody wants to learn that lesson while they're packed into a pressurized metal tube at 30,000 feet.

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