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May 30, 2011

Another reminder not to leave lithium batteries in your checked luggage

A potentially serious incident on an Air China flight on the weekend is a reminder to never pack the lithium batteries commonly found in computers and 'smart'

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A potentially serious incident on an Air China flight on the weekend is a reminder to never pack the lithium batteries commonly found in computers and ‘smart’ phones in  your checked luggage.

It is also a reminder that the Qantas and Virgin Australia rules that permit  lithium battery carriage in checked luggage ought to be abolished and replaced with a ban, because at present no inspections to enforce them take place, with the airlines relying instead on a tick the box declaration in the dangerous goods section of the check-in processes, something which is totally useless.

In the China incident a lithium-ion battery-pack in a passenger’s camera caught fire in an overhead bin in the Airbus A330 while it was flying between Beijing and Shanghai.

The incident ended well, in that the cabin crew searched for the source of a smell of burning, and found the camera just as it burst into flames said in media reports to have been 20 cms high, and bundled it into a toilet where the risk of ALL of the cells in battery pack burning or exploding was removed by following the procedures airlines have for extinguishing lithium fires.

But it might have been a very different and tragic story had the camera batteries experienced what is known as a thermal runaway inside checked luggage stowed in the hold.

Both types of lithium batteries, the li-ion packs that are rechargeable, and the non-rechargeable straight lithium type, pose fire hazards that can be readily handled in a cabin rather than under it.

In this video the US Federal Aviation Administration deals with the lithium-ion battery hazards and the very specific ways in which the risks of igniting the other batteries typically found in such power sources can be reduced by prompt action.


Now, ask yourself. Have you ever had your luggage on a flight in Australia examined for compliance with the lithium battery carriage rules as shown below on the Qantas and Virgin Australia websites? Of course not.

And also ask yourself. Do you ever read the dangerous goods declarations in details? Do you have any idea what the current Qantas and Virgin Australia restrictions on packed and checked lithium batteries mean, or how you would determine if your batteries complied?

The risk of a lithium battery fire in a passenger jet hold is almost entirely avoidable if their carriage in personal luggage is banned. It’s  such a simple thing to do, especially if it is done before rather than after a disaster.

Ben Sandilands — Editor of Plane Talking

Ben Sandilands

Editor of Plane Talking

Ben Sandilands has reported and analysed the mechanical mobility of humanity since late 1960 - the end of the age of great scheduled ocean liners and coastal steamers and the start of the jet age. He’s worked in newspapers, radio and TV in a wide range of roles as a journalist at home and abroad for 56 years, the last 18 freelance.

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13 thoughts on “Another reminder not to leave lithium batteries in your checked luggage

  1. Regarding comet’s post: A year or so ago a UPS 747 freighter crashed, most likely due to a fire started by thermal runaway. It was on a flight from I believe Doha to Dubai, so being thousands of kilometres from an airport is not at all a requirement for lithium to lead to a disaster.

    Also in relevant other news, if you go to the Ask the Pilot blog (linked on the right), you will find it reported that the US congress is blocking new FAA rules tightening the regulations for carriage of Li-ion batteries.

  2. You might remember from your high schoolr science class, that piece of lithium smoking and fizzing wildly in the tray. The stuff is highly unstable.

    Imagine if this had happened on Qantas’ long -haul flight to South Africa, passing over Antarctica,, thousands of kilometers from any airport.

    I recently watched à television crew check in a large number of super sized lithium cells onto a: Qantas flight. They needed so many.cells to power their broadcast equipment

  3. So as a fare paying passenger, in which later this year everyone self checked their baggage (obviously aware of their personal Lithium batteries….), am I enabled to question the Captain (Pilot in Command) of the flight, see previous article about Safety regulations (91.060 5 d), and request him to prove that the flight will be safe from Lithium battery issues?

    And if not request to get off the aircraft and seek a refund as the carrier can not assure my safety in relation to this specific regulation, which as a concerned consumer no longer wish to take a risk on this basis.

    I cant argue the legal point post the fire and creater; I should have the right to require the service provider to assure/prove the risk isn’t real and if they cant let me off and be refunded my fare and re-imbursed for the incovenience.

  4. Well, I can tell everyone (that has a need to know) that an aerosol can of shaving cream WITHOUT its cap is verboten. With its cap? OK.

    If depression did occur, the worse case scenario is a damp, aromatic interior of the zip bag and a useless toothbrush. Not much of a risk. And I havent yet found a way of charging my trusty Macbook whilst airborne in cattle class on a 767.

  5. Ben, you are not seriously suggesting that this is more important than searching rigorously for those master terrorist tools, nail clippers?

    Once I held up the line for about 15 minutes because the security checker was adamant I had something dangerous in my little toileteries bag because his wand detected it. Eventually he found a small nail clipper that had slipped into the bag lining–probably had been there for years but had avoided detection by maybe dozens of previous searches.

  6. Well as a photographer who flies a bit, actually I do know what my various batteries are rated at.

    Canon 1Ds MkIII Li-Ion battery (which will be bigger than 95% of most people’s camera batteries) = 25wh

    2011 MacBookAir = 35wh

    You have to be using some pretty serious gear to have 100wh plus batteries. I think even TV cameras use batteries under 160wh.

  7. Australia Post prohibits sending lithium ion batteries (including electronic devices that have them installed) overseas basically because ensuring adherence to these rules is too hard, though overseas postal services will happily send them to Australia.

    The guidelines FedEx and other cargo carriers have are that they must survive any drops or pressure that are put them as well.