Little thought is given to what lies beneath your feet when flying. Most passengers figure that an aircraft's cargo hold consists mostly of checked baggage and some mail. However, certain hazardous materials can be on board and a debate has been smoldering about the potential dangers of some types of lithium batteries carried as cargo.
Did you know that in the U.S. you cannot pack spare lithium batteries in your checked luggage? Carry-on bags are OK. The reason for the restriction is the possibility that a connected battery, one that is actively powering a device, can overheat and cause a fire. Though incidents of battery fires have been documented on passenger aircraft, no individual battery incident in the cargo hold has been implicated in any major accident. But speculations persist, as shipments of multiple batteries as cargo have caused a firestorm of debate among regulators, safety advocates, pilots unions, and the shipping and electronics industries.
A United Parcel Service (UPS) 747 freighter aircraft crashed on landing in Dubai in 2010 and another 747 cargo plane flown by Asiana Airlines crashed in the sea near the South Korean peninsula in 2011. Both airplanes were carrying shipments of lithium batteries among other cargo. Though the batteries in the cargo hold were not specifically declared as the cause of either accident, there is speculation that they may have played a part.
What alarmed regulators greatly was the fact that in both accidents, the cargo shipments of lithium batteries were not handled as dangerous goods because they were never declared as such. This failure has led to action by the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) through its Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to attempt new regulations on the declaration and handling of dangerous goods like lithium batteries. However, the reauthorization of funding for the FAA that was recently passed by the U.S. Congress limits that authority. The DOT is prevented from enacting requirements for the shipment of lithium batteries if the regulations exceed standards set forth by the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO). These standards can only be exceeded if a regulatory agency receives conclusive evidence that lithium batteries contributed to an onboard fire.
For its part, ICAO has announced that it will pursue new dangerous goods guidelines for labeling, training, inspecting, and notifying pilots of lithium battery shipments by 2013. Though ICAO sets the safety standards for commercial aviation, enforcement of regulations is left up to the safety agencies of individual nations. This concerns pilots who not only want a unified standard for the handling and shipment hazardous cargo, but who are also pushing for the universal adaptation of fire suppression technology in all commercial passenger and cargo aircraft. Different types of batteries require different handling in the event of a fire.
According to a Bloomberg article in December 2011, non-rechargeable lithium batteries were banned as cargo in passenger planes in 2004 but they can be carried by passengers in the cabin. However, the rechargeable types of lithium batteries can be transported as cargo in passenger aircraft. Both types of lithium batteries have caused 17 fires on passenger planes since 2004. In all but one incident, passengers had carried the batteries with them or packed them in their suitcases.
For airline passengers traveling with electronic equipment powered by lithium batteries, it might be worth noting the guidelines that are typically given for passengers. The following is from the Transportation Security Administration (TSA).