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Air Power: Where To Stow Rechargeable Devices

detail of a cellphone battery
Detail of a lithium-ion battery from a Nokia X3-00, © Raimond Spekking / CC BY-SA 4.0 (via Wikimedia Commons)

This week, many of Palisades Hudson’s staff members will fly to Fort Lauderdale, where we plan to celebrate the firm’s 25th anniversary.

Some of us fly frequently; others not so much. But a recent exchange with one of my employees inspired me to remind everyone to pay attention when deciding how to pack electronic devices that run on lithium-ion batteries.

Lithium-ion batteries are one of the most popular types of rechargeable batteries for personal electronics. You find them in smartphones, laptops, tablets and digital cameras. When they reside inside your devices, you can pack them in either carry-on baggage or checked bags (unless they’re inside a vaporizer or e-cigarette, which you can’t check at all). The Federal Aviation Administration recommends, but doesn’t require, that you keep devices with these batteries in carry-ons. But if you want to bring spare lithium-ion batteries, you cannot pack them in your checked baggage.

Why the special rules? Unlike dry alkaline batteries – your good old AAAs or AAs – lithium-ion batteries can malfunction and, in rare cases, catch fire. Usually such malfunctions occur because of a breach in the membranes that separate the battery’s charges; this causes a short circuit, which generates a sudden discharge of energy. The battery can reach temperatures approaching 1,000 degrees Fahrenheit in a condition known as “thermal runaway.” This can also happen if a battery’s electrodes come into contact with a loose metal object – say, when your checked bag is jostled by turbulence. In a worst-case scenario, the overheating battery may also destabilize other nearby batteries or ignite a flammable item such as an aerosol spray can or nail polish remover.

Exploding batteries are not common; millions of these devices never overheat. But the risk, while small, is real, and exceptions tend to turn up in headlines. “Self-balancing scooters,” more typically called hoverboards, have been banned on a variety of airlines, both in the cabin and in the cargo hold, after repeated reports of battery fires. (They’ve also been banned at a long list of other places, including malls, universities and the New York City subway.) In 2016, Samsung issued a massive recall on its Galaxy Note 7 smartphones after it became apparent that they were prone to spontaneously combust. Lithium batteries under manufacturer recall aren’t allowed on aircraft, no matter where you put them, for obvious reasons.

The danger of a cargo hold fire on an aircraft is not, unfortunately, purely theoretical. Passengers on a Delta Air Lines flight between Salt Lake City and Bozeman, Montana recently received a dramatic reminder of lithium-ion batteries’ dangers when the airline’s ground crew smelled fire in the cargo hold prior to takeoff and unloaded the baggage. Once the fire was out, a member of the cabin crew displayed the culprit – a toiletry bag that contained a lithium-ion battery, visibly charred – to passengers as a reminder of why loose batteries don’t belong in checked bags. Between March 1991 and December 2016, the FAA reported 138 aviation incidents involving lithium batteries. It is a very small percentage of the overall flights in a 25-year span, but enough that precautions are justified.

Most air travelers prefer to keep their laptops, not to mention their phones, with them rather than entrusting it to checked baggage’s potentially rough treatment. But if you do need to check an electronic device with a lithium-ion battery, the FAA requires that you shut it down completely, not just put it to sleep. And if you must check a carry-on bag planeside, regulators require you remove any spare lithium-ion batteries first. Some airlines institute policies even more restrictive than the FAA mandates, especially on international flights.

Last year, the Department of Homeland Security announced that laptops and other large electronics would not be allowed in passenger cabins of nonstop flights between the U.S. and certain airports in the Middle East and North Africa. While most of the outcry centered on the inconvenience of this rule, some people pointed out that lithium-ion batteries in these laptops could ignite, and that this rare but possible event would be more dangerous in a cargo hold than in the cabin, where flight attendants could more quickly notice a fire and more easily extinguish it. A cargo hold full of many passengers’ personal electronics would be an even bigger hazard.

John Cox, CEO of aviation consulting firm Safety Operating Systems, told Consumer Reports last year, “If you have a cargo hold with numerous lithium batteries, once one goes and starts that heating process, it can propagate to further devices.” Cox acknowledged that the FAA needed to balance battery fire risks against concerns about terrorism, but added, “I would like to see the risk analysis, but, at this point, I think that we’ve mitigated some risk and introduced some other.” The ban has since been lifted due to airlines taking other security measures, but it drew attention to the question of where to put lithium battery-powered electronics.

Safety concerns have also led some airlines recently to restrict “smart luggage:” bags that may feature motorized locomotion, GPS tracking or built-in weight sensors. All of which are handy, but all of which also require some sort of power source, often lithium-ion batteries. American Airlines, Delta and Alaska Airlines now require passengers to remove the bag’s power source if they plan to check it. Bags whose batteries can’t be removed are a no-go.

As basic air safety precautions go, the rules about lithium-ion batteries are more straightforward than most. Keeping your batteries in your electronics and your electronics in your carry-ons is a simple step that can make everyone safer – just don’t forget to put all of them in “airplane mode” before takeoff.

Larry M. Elkin is the founder and president of Palisades Hudson, and is based out of Palisades Hudson’s Fort Lauderdale, Florida headquarters. He wrote several of the chapters in the firm’s book, Looking Ahead: Life, Family, Wealth and Business After 55. His contributions include Chapter 1, “Looking Ahead When Youth Is Behind Us” and Chapter 4, “The Family Business."

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