Lithium Battery Fires On Airliners Average More Than One Per Week


Forbes is reporting that lithium battery fires on airliners are happening at a rate greater than one per week. The magazine reviewed FAA data and found that at least 62 battery incidents happened in 2022, up from 54 the previous year and seven times the nine reports in 2014. The FAA says that’s how many they know of and there could be more. So far, the results of fires in devices and the portable power packs that many people carry to recharge them have been relatively minor most of the time but not always.

All airliners are equipped with “thermal containment bags” and cabin crews are trained to handle the overheating devices. But sometimes it takes a while for the fire to be noticed and the consequences can be more serious. Forbes said 10 passengers and crew on a Spirit Airlines flight were taken to a Jacksonville hospital after the flight diverted there. A battery pack overheated in a bag in the overhead bin and the cabin filled with smoke. “The pilot got us out of the air really fast … but it was quite frightening for a little while until we knew we were on the ground and safe,” passenger Kerri Arakawa told Tampa-bay NBC affiliate WTLV.

Russ Niles
Russ Niles is Editor-in-Chief of AVweb. He has been a pilot for 30 years and joined AVweb 22 years ago. He and his wife Marni live in southern British Columbia where they also operate a small winery.

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  1. It’s a matter of time if these incidents are indeed so common…

    2nd paragraph: I love battered foods, but a battery are probably what you are intending to refer to.

  2. Hmmm. e-Power is so safe and effective, we should really consider batteries in banks and arrays as sole power sources for our human-occupied aerial phenomena.

    • A newly built battery storage facility north of Monterey CA has been in service for about a year and already had three battery bank fires that took it off line for either charging or discharge.

    • If the lithium batteries in a 787 go into thermal runaway does it matter that they’re not the sole source of power? If the battery in a eVtol is built to the same standard as a 787 battery does it matter that it *is* the sole source of power? Does a fire in passenger consumer electronics tell us anything useful about eVtol power sources?

  3. I know enough about LiPo batteries from using them in model airplanes to be very aware of their proper treatment and handling. I am always concerned that most passengers are oblivious to their potential to wreak havoc during a flight yet they are still are allowed to be carried aboard.

  4. It sounds like no one is keeping any type of record to pinpoint the problem. There should be a pattern. Battery Banks are becoming more common and could be the culprit. Batteries almost always charge properly because a wall charge is slow. Backup banks are a relatively faster method of charging. If the BMS inside fails to work properly, then the safety factor is gone. Fixing the problem could be as simple as requiring all passengers to have their stored devices and Banks off or discounted while onboard. Second, have more wall charging accessibility at the waiting area in the terminal so passenger won’t feel the need to recharge in the air.

  5. I suspect the increasing number of airborne fires is mainly due to the increasing number of passengers carrying devices that use lithium-based batteries. Both the physical number of devices and the battery capacity of those devices is increasing. As recently as 2015, almost no one carried a rechargeable “brick” with them for portable recharging. Now they seem to be everywhere and I question the quality control of something made in a sweat shop in some third world country. What really scares me is that, sooner or later, someone will pack one in a suitcase that ends up in the baggage hold and cooks off down there. At least in the cabin the device can be put in a fireproof bag and contained.

    • It’s probably a matter of time before a lithium battery brings down an airplane. I suspect it will be in a single engine piston though.

  6. Thankfully, a small battery inside the cabin where a runaway can be dealt with will almost always end up as just an “incident”, albeit an exciting one for the passengers.

    If or when we do start dealing with propulsion-level batteries in passenger carriers, it’s a different story, and virtually everything you can do to move the battery pack towards the dream goal of intrinsic safety will also decrease its energy density. How safe will be safe enough?

  7. Now imagine if the airplane was powered by an enormous lithium battery and that had runaway hyperthermia and ignited? Ballgame.

    • I rather not think about that, but that’s exactly what’s being developed as we speak. Fire is one of the worst events a pilot can experience while aloft and these lithium-powered aircraft will be susceptible to fires ala Tesla.

  8. IANAE – Rhe thermal runaway of these batteries is a problem. Sounds like the containment bags would only hold a few. What is the Plan B if this fails to to contain them?

    As for propulsion-level batteries, there will be many batteries in close proximity. This likely cause a cascade effect. Should the aircraft design include a way to eject these if necessary? Yes – there will be undesirable consequences of this as well. Is there a way to balance the risks from an aircraft vs one of its battery packs falling from the sky? Or do we not use these batteries for propulsion and wait for the next type or generation that doesn’t carry these risks?

  9. Until these batteries bring down a plane with a huge loss of life, nothing will be done to correct the issue. The price of blood must be paid before any changes are instigated.

  10. If you want to certify lithium ion batteries for aviation use, you need to prove that a thermal runaway of a single cell will not damage the aircraft or the surrounding cells in a battery pack. This has to be proven by intentionally damaging a full battery pack and then see what happens. The casing has to withstand the heat and a proper gas exhaust system has to be present and proven to work.
    Also in modern battery packs the single cell will be isolated and the pack still functions and delivers energy.

    For power banks, phones, laptops and whatever, it looks very different. It scares me when I see the treatment that most of these devices get and how many broken ones I see around, broken and heating wires and connectors, broken cases on many phones, power banks that are thrown around and have cracks and defect wiring, laptops that have a visible bulge at the bottom because the battery has started to degrade and swells up. We had a load of laptops where each one was affected after 4 years of use and my colleagues still ignored this and went on business trips with them.

    • The swelling is the result of heat. It causes the solid O2 in the cell to turn to gas. If it gets hot enough, the oxygen ignites. Laptops have cooling fans. If the device is left on and wrapped up in a bag, the fan cannot do its job. Even when using a laptop – make sure the fan is not blocked. The biggest problem with Lithium is that people don’t take the time to learn how to care for them.

      • What ‘solid’ O2 is that? Oxygen freezes at hundreds of degrees below freezing – not exactly typical laptop conditions. And oxygen doesn’t ignite, it facilitates the combustion of other materials.

  11. O2 is oxygen. It is used in the solid form in lithium batteries. It is only ingredient in the cells that can burn.

    • O2 is pure oxygen, which – as I mentioned – needs extreme cold to exist in its solid form (unless under extreme pressure).

      What is used in most lithium ion cell cathodes is lithium cobalt oxide (LiCoO2), which is a solid, and which releases O2 – as a gas – when heated.

      But oxygen doesn’t burn. It is the electrolyte that oxidizes (burns).