Batteries Should Go By Ship, Not Airplane
Earlier this week, Russ Niles sent me a news clipping describing a house fire in which an overheated laptop computer was implicated as the cause. This came just as ALPA, the airline union, was calling for regulations banning air transport of the high-energy lithium-ion batteries that power everything from laptops to portable DVD players. These batteries have been implicated in a number of aircraft fires and there have been numerous non-aircraft related incidents involving lithium batteries. Google around for 15 minutes and you'll find plenty.
Thus far, the FAA has demurred, noting instead that it's studying the problem. While I'm generally not a proponent of regulation, this one is a good idea. Lithium batteries are, in my opinion, like little hand grenades-- accident craters looking for a grid reference. If the industry doesn't take some kind of action, it's only a matter of time before there's a hull loss due to a battery fire. Many—if not most—of these batteries are made in China, where manufacturing quality control is barely understood, much less practiced. If you're a UPS or FedEx pilot over the dark Pacific in the middle of the night, it may be better to just not think about the pallet of lithium batteries stuffed into a container somewhere behind you.
Call me naïve, but why don't the airlines just ban these things on an industry council basis? Just declare them "not acceptable for air transport" and let them go by ship. Then let the regulators sort it out later. I don't think it's worth the risk of burning up a freighter just so our precious little computers and gadgets can operate 30 minutes longer.
It's not just cargo aircraft, either. On any typical airline flight, how many passengers are carrying laptops? A third? Half? On my last business trip, I was carrying two, plus three cameras, all with lithium batteries. The fire risk in the cabin is rather lower because you don't have the things stacked up in a thermal critical mass and you can at least get at one if it cooks off. The batteries are notoriously difficult to extinguish if they do ignite. I don't think they need to be banned from the cabin. For a single battery, the risk is probably acceptably low. But users of these batteries should understand they pack a hell of a lot energy into a small space.
Here's something else to think about. If you carry a laptop or other lithium-powered device in your personal airplane, where do you carry it? Don't put it out of reach in the baggage compartment. If it ignites in the small confines of a light aircraft, you could have a big problem. Better to have it within reach so you can hit it with a fire extinguisher—you're carrying one, right?—in the remote event that it ignites. In dire circumstances, I suppose you could eject the thing if you had to, which is something freighter pilots can't do.
That's why they favor banning air shipments of lithium batteries. And I think they're right.