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To pack or not to pack? Lithium ion batteries on planes

Have you ever thought about what powers the devices you use everyday like your laptop and cell phone? Or a camera, handheld gaming device or a vaping device? Would you be surprised to know that the batteries that power all of these popular devices can pose a threat on airplanes? The FAA has recently highlighted the importance of properly packing devices containing lithium batteries.

What Are Lithium Batteries?

 These powerful batteries are chemically complex, but in the simplest terms a lithium-ion battery is a rechargeable battery that uses lithium-ion cells as a key component of its electrochemistry. Lithium batteries (also called lithium metal batteries) use metallic lithium and are primary cells (meaning they are not rechargeable). Alternatively, alkaline batteries derive energy from the reactions between different metals (like zinc and manganese dioxide or nickel and cadmium).

 

What Devices Use Lithium Batteries?

The majority of portable electronics use lithium-ion batteries like cellphones, tablets, and laptops. Lithium-ion batteries are also used in electric vehicles. Some medical devices like pacemakers and hearing aids may use lithium batteries. But the items of biggest concern on planes that use lithium-ion batteries are vapes and electric smoking devices.

 

Why Are Lithium Batteries a Big Deal?

Lithium-ion batteries have a tendency to overheat, and can cause smoke, fire, and extreme heat. This generally occurs in units that are damaged or defective but can also occur under various circumstances. Things that can trigger lithium-ion battery-related incidents include overheating, electrical triggers like overcharging or short-circuiting, or physical damage to the unit.

You may remember back in 2016, when the Department of Transportation banned the Galaxy Note 7 phone from all airplanes after multiple recalls and incidents involving the devices. The incidents were caused by the phone’s lithium-ion battery overheating and smoking, catching fire, or even exploding. Samsung stopped manufacturing the phone and offered replacements.  This was an early example of the dangers of lithium-ion batteries being brought to the public’s attention.

 In 2022, the FAA reported lithium battery incidents on aircraft averaging nearly one incident per week. Incidents involved things like batteries overheating, smoke, and even fires. The majority of the incidents in 2022 were caused by vapes and electric smoking devices.

 

Can You Bring Lithium Batteries on a Plane?

The short answer is yes, you can bring lithium batteries and lithium battery powered devices on planes. However, there are limits and instructions on how to safely pack them

The key message, according to the FAA, is that items with lithium-ion batteries (like portable electronics and vapes) should be packed in your carry on. The safest place for lithium battery-powered devices is in the aircraft cabin, so that cabin crew can quickly respond to any incidents. Remember that if your carryon is checked at the gate or planeside, be sure to remove your devices and bring them with you into the cabin.

Each airline has guidelines on how to pack lithium battery-powered devices and the limits on spare batteries. Be sure to look at your airline’s rules (generally found under “baggage” and “restricted items”). 

 

Vapes on a Plane

This clever campaign, which is a play on the movie Snakes on a Plane, is the FAA’s attempt to educate people about the hazards of lithium-ion batteries and the importance of packing them correctly. The aim is to make sure people know to pack their vapes and electronic smoking devices in their carry on so that they are in the cabin and not in checked luggage. 

It is also important to never use or charge the devices in the aircraft. In fact, vaping or smoking electronic cigarettes on planes is illegal and a federal offense. 

Vapes on a Plane poster

 

What Do I Do if there is a Lithium Battery Incident on a Flight?

Flight crews are trained to recognize and respond to lithium battery incidents in the cabin. You should notify a crew member immediately if you notice your device overheating, expanding, smoking, or burning.

 

You Can Help Keep the Skies Safe!

Lithium and lithium-ion batteries have allowed for huge advances in portable electronics. We don’t realize how many of the devices we use every day are powered by these batteries. It is up to each of us to make sure we pack our electronics responsibly to ensure that air travel is safe for ourselves and our fellow passengers.