As aviation adopts the use of lithium-ion batteries across the supply chain, a rise in on-flight incidents of batteries overheating raises the question: are they safe for use?
If you were sitting on flight 259 from Dallas to Orlando on Wednesday the 1st of March, 2023, or if you were a member of the flight crew, you would have been distressed, mid-flight, to see smoke start pouring from one of the luggage bins and fill the cabin.
A fire. The cause? A tiny lithium battery from inside a passenger’s personal device.
This is just one of a number of incidents of lithium batteries overheating mid-flight on which Forbes has recently reported. The flight was swiftly diverted to Jacksonville, Florida, and nobody was seriously injured, but according to reports from the Jacksonville Fire Department, 10 crew members and passengers were still hospitalised as a precaution.
“Incidents of overheated lithium batteries on aircraft are now happening at an average rate of more than one per week in the US.” Forbes
Rechargeable lithium-ion batteries are taking wing across the aviation supply chain. As they do, it’s important that we understand the risks they pose and the processes we need to maintain, store, and transport them safely, as well as what to do in the event of a fire — in the air or on the ground — to manage their use responsibly and keep our people safe.
Lithium-ion batteries take wing
On-flight, thermal containment bags have been widely used by the aviation industry since 2016 following the widely reported explosions of Samsung Galaxy Note 7 smartphones.
In the event of a battery-operated device overheating, these fire-containment bags can be used to seal up and contain the device, potentially preventing a midair disaster.
But the uptake of lithium-ion batteries means that these battery types aren’t just an on-flight concern anymore. In particular, aircraft manufacturers are beginning to move away from nickel cadmium (Ni-cad) batteries to lithium-ion batteries, which offer greater capacity for less weight and the ability to explore more electrically charged aircraft systems.
As on-flight incidents rise and lithium-ion batteries are adopted more widely across the manufacturing process, airlines should review their storage and containment solutions — in the air and on the ground — to make sure their people and their customers are safe.
How to navigate in uncharted air space
At a glance, the lack of regulations around lithium–ion batteries can be seen to complicate this. Globally, many countries have yet to define what lithium-ion legislation looks like, putting the responsibility for management firmly in the hands of aviation companies.
In a highly-regulated industry like aviation, the lack of official guidance can lead to some confusion about even basic guidelines such as how the batteries should be stored, charged, and transported in a way that will keep the company compliant and its people safe.
Right now, the best way to review your airline’s approach to lithium-ion battery storage and how the batteries are used going forwards is to consult with a safety and storage expert.
Advice to keep your people safe
An experienced safety and storage provider will be able to review your existing processes with you and offer advice that helps you to ensure this technology is being adopted safely and responsible across your operations.
- In the absence of consistent government guidelines, this can give you the confidence to invest in this exciting and innovative technology safely.
- It can help you to maintain high health and safety standards across your operations.
- It can give you a better understanding of your on-flight safety measures and whether or not they would be adequate in the event of a device overheating, too.
During normal operation, lithium-ion batteries are considered safe, and the ability to explore more electrically powered systems is just one of the ways in which they have the potential to transform the aviation industry as we know it. At a time when the environment is in crisis, this technology could help airline companies around the world to operate more sustainably.
But if you were sitting on flight 259 from Dallas to Orlando on Wednesday the 1st of March, you’d probably have been quite scared. We owe it to our customers, and to our colleagues across the supply chain handling this technology every day, to understand its risk, so that the next time this happens, on the ground or in the air, you’re ready to keep them safe.