Batteries Can Pose Fire Risk to Planes

WASHINGTON -- A rash of fires on planes has spurred the government to plan new restrictions on how airline passengers may carry lithium batteries used to power laptop computers and cellphones.

The Department of Transportation, which already bars bulk shipments of some lithium batteries on passenger planes, expects to propose more restrictions later this year, said Bob Richard of the DOT's Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration.

While the agency has no immediate plans to ban the batteries from carry-on luggage, he said, the risks of batteries in airplane cabins are being studied. Restrictions on carrying the batteries in checked items are possible, Richard said.

"We recognize that the American public wants to be able to carry their batteries and electronic equipment aboard aircraft, but we have to weigh the safety issues," he said. "Any fire aboard an aircraft is unacceptable."

Fire safety officials, airline pilots and consumer groups are pushing for new rules on the batteries. At least nine fires involving lithium batteries have happened on airplanes or in cargo destined for planes since 2005, according to federal safety records reviewed by USA TODAY. None of the fires caused serious injuries.

Until new rules are in place, Richard said, his agency and the Federal Aviation Administration are asking companies that make and ship the batteries to take voluntary steps to ease fire risks. The agencies also will launch a safety awareness campaign for passengers.

Lithium batteries come in two types: lithium metal, which are single-use, and lithium-ion, which can be recharged. Both store energy that generates intense heat during a short circuit. A short can occur if metal touches both terminals or if internal seals fail.

Some low-cost or counterfeit batteries lack safeguards against short circuits, and manufacturing defects have rendered such protections useless in others. In the past year, more than 4 million lithium batteries have been recalled for such problems.

Battery industry representatives acknowledge that new cargo restrictions may be needed. They also have agreed to set voluntary standards on packaging and labeling shipments. But they see no need to bar laptops or other devices on planes.

"Bringing these onto an aircraft doesn't present any additional danger, provided you take care of your batteries," said George Kerchner, head of the Portable Rechargeable Battery Association.

Bulk shipments of lithium metal batteries were banned on passenger flights in 2004, in part because fires in those batteries are especially hard to put out. But the Air Line Pilots Association, the largest pilots union, wants cargo flights included in the ban, too.

The National Association of State Fire Marshals says bulk transport of lithium-ion batteries also should be restricted, particularly on passenger flights. But Maine State Fire Marshal John Dean, president of the association, said the question of whether to ban the rechargeable batteries in carry-on items needs more study.

A battery fire in a carry-on bag would be more easily detected and controlled by crew, Dean said. And, given the popularity of laptops and cellphones, banning them in carry-ons would be difficult.

Regulators "are caught in the middle," Dean said. "But if you think about being on a passenger plane and one of these catches fire -- even if the crew can control it, that's a bad situation with all the smoke." Safety tips

Federal officials expect to launch a public education campaign about battery safety on aircraft. Tips for safe handling:

*Keep batteries in original packaging, if possible.

*Protect batteries against impact.

*Put batteries in plastic bags or cover their contacts with electrical tape.

*Never place non-rechargeable lithium batteries in checked bags.

*Never carry onto an aircraft cracked or damaged batteries, a battery that has been recalled for safety problems, or batteries that do not meet standards set by a group such as Underwriters Laboratories.