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The Risk of Portable Chargers on Airplanes

The aviation industry is facing a new type of risk on commercial flights – exploding portable chargers. In February 2018, a carry-on bag containing a portable power bank exploded and caught flame on a China Southern Airlines flight, luckily before the plane left the ground. The lithium-ion battery in the portable charger caught fire, resulting in a conflagration that forced the airline to put passengers on a different flight. Here’s what travelers should know about the potential risks of portable chargers on airplanes.

What Are Lithium-Ion Batteries?

Lithium-ion batteries are rechargeable batteries often found in portable and home electronics. Lithium cobalt oxide batteries, often found in handheld electronics, can present safety risks due to higher energy density. When these batteries suffer damage, the risk of problems increases. All lithium ion batteries contain a flammable electrolyte that can short circuit, catch fire, and explode. Something as simple as a rechargeable battery cell charging too quickly could cause fire hazards. Despite stringent testing requirements, battery-related fires still occur.

Portable chargers often use rechargeable lithium-ion batteries because they are lightweight and can carry significant charging capacity. One smartphone, the Samsung Galaxy Note 7, also uses these batteries. In 2016, the Department of Transportation banned this specific type of phone from air transportation in the U.S. due to potential fire risk from exploding batteries. If a lithium-ion battery overheats, overcharges, or otherwise suffers damage, the battery cell can rupture and lead to leakage and fire. Now, portable chargers may present the same problem.

Why the FAA is Warning Against Bringing Spare Batteries On-board Aircraft

In 2016, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) urged airlines to reassess the risks of lithium-ion batteries. Up until this point, airlines had banned lithium-ion and lithium metal batteries from checked bags but still allowed them in carry-on luggage. The FAA voiced concerns about the safety of bringing lithium batteries in carry-ons after conducting a series of safety tests that found a risk of “catastrophic aircraft loss” from battery fires or explosions. The FAA’s tests found that current airline fire suppression systems were not enough to contain lithium battery fires.

The FAA’s safety alert asked commercial passenger and cargo planes to conduct safety risk assessments on lithium batteries as any type of cargo. The FAA issued guidelines to help inspectors determine whether airlines have assessed the risks. Since then, the International Civil Aviation Organization and two aircraft manufacturers, Boeing, and Airbus, have advised companies about the risks of allowing passengers to carry lithium batteries as cargo. Thanks to the FAA’s actions, most airlines in the U.S. now do not allow passengers to carry rechargeable lithium-ion batteries on-board.

The FAA’s warning, however, remains a voluntary one. Not all airlines have heeded the FAA’s advice. In the two years after the FAA’s warning, several cabin fires have started because of batteries in cell phones, handheld electronics, and portable chargers. The very same month as the China Southern Airlines fire earlier this year, a portable phone charger caught fire on an Aeroflot flight from Moscow to Volgograd, Russia.

Injured in a Plane Fire?

Due to many airlines ignoring the FAA’s warning regarding portable chargers and lithium-ion batteries, fliers are still at risk of harmful cabin fires and explosions. In the event of a fire during flight, a plane would need to make an emergency landing. Passengers might suffer from damages ranging from a slight inconvenience to serious burns and death. If you suffered thermal burns, smoke inhalation, chemical burns, property damage, or other injuries because of a lithium battery fire on an airplane, talk to an attorney. You might have a claim against the airline, the passenger, and/or other parties.

If a passenger disregards an airline’s warning not to bring lithium-ion batteries on board, injured parties might have a claim against the individual for breaking the rules. The passenger could have a claim against the airline itself, however, if it negligently failed to prevent the fire from occurring. For example, if it reasonably should have known of the risk of allowing a portable charger on-board but let the passenger bring it anyway. With the rules still changing and more and more issues arising with lithium-ion batteries on planes, it is worthwhile to seek counsel from an attorney after a related incident.

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