The Air Up There Podcast
Fly Safe With Lithium Batteries
Watts all this talk about lithium batteries and why are they such a hot topic when it comes to flying? You might be shocked to learn that everyday items you pack in your travel bags contain lithium batteries that can cause cabin fires. Your cell phone, laptop, tablet, and smart watch all have lithium batteries and can be potential fire hazards. On the positive side, you have the power to reduce these risks.
Now that we’ve sparked your interest, listen to our latest podcast episode, “Fly Safe With Lithium Batteries” to learn more about these hazards and the steps you can take to protect yourself, fellow passengers, and the aircraft.
Robert Ochs, Manager of the Fire Safety Branch at the FAA’s William J. Hughes Technical Center, offers insight into what causes lithium batteries to overheat and danger signs to look for when flying with your lithium devices. Then Jay Sorah, FAA Transportation Specialist, provides tips for safely packing lithium battery powered devices and the importance of packing them in your carry-on versus your checked bag when you fly.
We charge you to think about safety when it comes to traveling with lithium battery powered devices. Pack safe, know the signs of a battery failure, and take the proper precautions to reduce risks. Be the conduit to sharing this important safety information with your traveling friends, family, and colleagues and visit www.faa.gov/hazmat/packsafe.
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Jay Sorah: One of the most common areas that we have are things with lithium batteries, so your computer, your laptop, your vaping device, your cell phone.
Robert Ochs: The lithium batteries are a much more energetic fire source than what was envisioned when these suppression systems were designed and the regulations were created.
Lucy Jabbour: Embarrassment? Sure. But you're not in trouble.
Jay Sorah: No.
Lucy Jabbour: Like, if that happens to your device, you’re not going to get a fine. I mean, you’re not in trouble for that.
Jay Sorah: They want you to take it out. They want you to let them know it’s there because they wanna be safe and they’re not gonna know it’s there unless you say something.
Voiceover: Welcome to the Air Up There. A podcast about the wide world of aerospace. Presented by the Federal Aviation Administration.
Deja Leigh: Hi there! Thanks for listening. We’ll be your hosts today. My name is Deja Leigh.
Lucy Jabbour: And I’m Lucy Jabbour.
Deja Leigh: This episode we’re learning all about lithium batteries and how they can create risk for air travel. We’ll be speaking with an FAA transportation specialist who has tips on how to safely pack lithium batteries.
Lucy Jabbour: But first, we’ll meet an expert from the FAA Tech Center who has the coolest job I’ve ever heard of… he lights stuff on fire for a living, all in the name of aviation safety.
Deja Leigh: Our first guest is Robert Ochs, manager of the fire safety branch at the FAA’s William J. Hughes Technical Center, or tech center, the nation's premier Federal Aviation lab.
Robert Ochs: Hi, Deja, thanks for having me. I'm glad to be here and to spread the word about lithium battery fire safety.
Deja Leigh: Robert, tell us what you do at the tech center.
Robert Ochs: Here at the tech center, we do aircraft fire safety research and development. And the way I like to put it is we burn airplanes down here on the ground so they don't burn up in the air.
Deja Leigh: Okay, so you know, fire safety, which has a lot to do with the recent events regarding lithium batteries. What's the science behind the risk of lithium batteries, and what technically causes them to overheat?
Robert Ochs: So, lithium batteries, they are great power sources. They power everything from our cell phones to our electric cars and everything in between. They have a high energy density, so there's a lot of electrical power in a relatively small volume battery pack. They can however, undergo a failure mode called thermal runaway. So, this thermal runaway occurs if there is an internal short circuit within the battery itself, where energy will start to flow within the battery. And that creates a good amount of heat. And if that heat can't be dissipated, then the heat just keeps building and building to the point where the cell fails. And you can have everything from fires to explosions and it's a very, very dangerous situation.
Deja Leigh: What does ‘battery heat dissipating’ mean? Can you explain that, elaborate just a little bit more.
Robert Ochs: So, heat dissipation really is just the transfer of heat from the battery to its surroundings, its environment, something next to it. So, if the battery doesn't have a way or a place to transfer that heat to that heat just stays within the cell, and it just keeps getting hotter and hotter. So that's why we recommend using water as a method to cool the battery. So that water is a great heat transfer medium, it allows for heat to transfer quickly from the cell to the water.
Deja Leigh: Do batteries pose the same risk on the ground that they do in the airplane?
Robert Ochs: So, the main difference between a fire on an airplane versus a fire on the ground is that in an airplane in flight, there's really no possibility for evacuation.
Deja Leigh: Okay, so what are some signs that passengers can kind of be aware of or look out for when they are carrying lithium batteries with them.
Robert Ochs: So, if your device or your battery is starting to fail, you'll notice that it's getting hot to the touch, warmer than usual. If the device starts to swell or expand or open up at the seams, that's definitely a sign that your battery is failing. Obviously smoke and flames is a problem as well.
Deja Leigh: When I notice these signs, what should I do? Is there anything that I can do myself in terms of cooling my phone down?
Robert Ochs: If you do notice any of these signs definitely you know, get the attention of the cabin crew immediately you know they are trained to handle these type of situations.
Deja Leigh: Okay, step number one if this ever happens, immediately let a flight attendant know.
Robert Ochs: Absolutely.
Deja Leigh: How often is this really happening? Is this something that's happening all the time?
Robert Ochs: You know, you'll, you'll see it on the news every now and then we're these types of incidents happen. They're not, you know, very common, but they do seem to get the most attention when they do occur. You know, generally it's a single device that fails. Typically, if it does occur, it's detected quickly by the crew. The correct action is taken to extinguish the fire. And typically, the flight is diverted out of caution.
Deja Leigh: As a passenger is powering off the device, the only thing we can do to prevent overheating, or are there other things that can be done to avoid these lithium battery issues?
Robert Ochs: So, powering off the device is a great start, it won't be using any energy at that point, it's less likely to go into a thermal runaway. If you know that you are bringing a device that you won't be using during your trip, it's actually best to have it at a lower battery level. So, if it's at 30%, say, or lower, it's less likely to undergo thermal runaway and the reaction would be less severe. Another thing to do would be to not charge it. So, if you have a device that is off, but you're still charging it, it could also go into thermal runaway in that situation as well. So, it would be best to just keep it powered off and also not plugged in.
Deja Leigh: Oh, wow. It's good that you say that because every time I get on a plane, I try to ensure that all of my devices are at 100% fully charged. Is there anything else you would like to touch on or just a main takeaway?
Robert Ochs: So, the reason we're here really is just to communicate, you know what the potential hazards are with lithium battery powered electronic devices. We're not trying to scare people into not, you know, bringing these devices on board or always having them at a 0% battery level for safety. We just want the general flying public to be aware that you know, there is a hazard associated with it. And, you know, to understand that there are procedures in place that are based on research that we've done here at the tech center to effectively mitigate these types of situations.
Deja Leigh: Robert, thank you so much for coming on today and talking to us about this. I feel like I learned so much.
Robert Ochs: Sure, no problem, Deja, thanks for having me. I'm glad that the research that we do here in the lab is going to be useful to the general flying public and helping them fly safer with their electronic devices on aircraft.
Lucy Jabbour: Now that we know more about how lithium batteries work and what causes them to overheat, it’s time to talk packing.
Deja: You got a chance to talk with an FAA transportation specialist who knows all about hazardous goods, which is what lithium batteries are. And you got tips on how to spot a battery overheating and what to do if it does happen to you on a flight.
Lucy Jabbour: So next up we have FAA’s Jay Sorah. He's a Transportation Specialist who works with hazardous materials or dangerous goods. I don't know if there's a difference between the two. Maybe we'll learn that today, but thanks so much for joining us, we really appreciate you being on the podcast.
Jay Sorah: Thank you, glad to be here.
Lucy Jabbour: So, we want to kind of talk about lithium batteries today, because we keep hearing in the news, like there's like a fire on a plane, and they're like, oh, it was somebody's lithium battery. And you think, that won't be me. But then you start to look at like how many things you own that potentially have a lithium battery inside of them. And it's like, oh, that could happen to anybody, technically. Right?
Jay Sorah: Right. Well, I'll tell you what, Lucy, actually your first question, you start off with leads in very well to that, and that is what are hazardous materials and dangerous goods and hazardous cargo? And just the simple answer is, it's all the same, it's synonymous. A lot of the products that we use every day, in our home, are actually things when they're in transportation are considered to be hazardous. And lithium batteries is a great example. So, it falls into the next question. You’re like, what all has lithium batteries in it? Let's make it simple now, what don't have a battery in it now today? It's a litany of things that we have now that come into the aircraft that can introduce risk.
Lucy Jabbour: So, let's talk about packing. Because I think that's where things get confusing for most of us, you know. It's like, we got the carry on, some people do a checked bag. Where should my lithium batteries go?
Jay Sorah: One of the most common areas that we have are things with lithium batteries, so your computer, your laptop, your vaping device, your cell phone, okay? I'm going to talk about those three, because those are probably the most common three that everybody has. So, whether you have carry-on or checked baggage or a combination of the two, you're usually going to have those three devices on there and people get very concerned. First of all, make sure that the batteries that you're buying for these devices that they're actually made for that device, and it's not a knock off. You also want to make sure that the charger you have for that battery is made for that battery. We'd like you to have your batteries with you in the cabin, we prefer that. Because if something happens, you or somebody else, in aircraft is going to see it, hear it, smell it and you're going to be able to do something to get help to get it mitigated. Whereas if it's underneath the aircraft and cargo hold, that's a whole different ballgame for us. Let's talk about vaping. Not everybody smokes. And it's been illegal to smoke on our aircraft for some time now. So, you can't smoke on aircraft, even with electronic cigarette or vaping device. I can't stress that enough. However, we want you to bring it on board with you again, for the same reason. If they activate accidentally or self-activate we want them to where we can, somebody's going to see it, hear it, smell it, and they're going to be able to get to it, to mitigate it so it's not a problem. One of the biggest commonalities that happen is that people will have these things in their carry on, they'll have it on their backpack or bag, and they get on the aircraft and the overhead is full. Not that that ever happens, right?
Lucy Jabbour: Never.
Jay Sorah: Right never happens. And a flight attendant will approach you and go hey, the overhead’s full, go ahead, just give me your bag, I’ll gate check it here for you.
Lucy Jabbour: Wow, we're reading my mind because that was actually going to be the next question I was going to ask you is I've seen that happen to people before. And I thought, wait a second.
Jay Sorah: Well, and what happens a lot of times people panic. And we want you to do, is not panic. To think about and say something to the flight attendant, you know, “Hey, I have I have my vape in there, I have my laptop in there. Do you mind if I take it out?” And they want you to take it out. They want you to let them know that it's there. Because they want to be safe, and they're not going to know it's there unless you say something.
Lucy Jabbour: Even when you’re on the plane, even if you think about it that late it's important to make sure that you do say something.
Jay Sorah: Absolutely, absolutely.
Lucy Jabbour: Don’t be embarrassed.
Jay Sorah: Nope, no, don't be embarrassed about it. It happens every day. But again, it's it really is about the safety of the aircraft. Another example that I mentioned, just real briefly, that not that anybody carries these things, but there's these things called cell phones. And one of the one of the common things that happened with those is that people they will fall out of their pocket or fall into the seat, and people panic, and they start to set their seat back up. And a lot of times, that's where we have problems is because it actually gets pinched in the mechanism and it don't do well. So, if you if your phone comes out, please hit the call button, let the flight attendant come because they're trained to come help retrieve that out of that seat.
Lucy Jabbour: I've actually heard that if you drop your cell phone, don't get it yourself. And I've always wondered like, why.
Jay Sorah: For a cabin crew that's ever had to sit there and see the sparks flying out from one of these things, they they're going to make sure that they are emphasizing that for every flight from there on out that they're on, please, please, please let us know.
Lucy Jabbour: Question, I've been hearing about these little things that people have now they're like luggage, tag trackers or something. And the whole point of these is you put them in your luggage or like your purse or like whatever. Aren't those lithium battery powered devices-like?
Jay Sorah: It's a great question but not all electronic bag tags are the same. But most of those are lithium batteries, and they're eligible for use in checked baggage, when it's less than point 3 grams of lithium metal and not exceeding 2.7-watt hours. Don't worry about it. Don't have to store it in your brain, you can ask your air carrier ahead of time. Yes. And in that way, you won't run into any kind of issues or problems. The other you know, issues that we have are with spare batteries of all shapes sizes. Because even people will have in their pocket and it'll come in contact with their keys and change you know, metal objects that will actually conduct electricity.
Lucy Jabbour: That happened to me, Jay. Purse lit on fire. When you say what was the three things you say? See it, hear it, smell it? Is that, am I getting that right? Yes. That's exactly what happened because it was like does anyone smell something burning? It was totally a spare battery in my purse, and I had loose change in my purse.
Jay Sorah: That was where you were on the ground, could you imagine being in a cabin aircraft setting, just a little bit, a little bit different of an environment.
Lucy Jabbour: Obviously, if this happens to you, it's super embarrassing. It sounds like what you're saying is, it's better to like, be aware, say something really quickly about it, and just own it. Because like, you can't control it, it could be anybody who has a device that this could happen to. Even though it's rare is my understanding, right? Like, this doesn't happen very often. But clearly, when it happens, you hear about it.
Jay Sorah: No, to be honest with you, it happens more often than then, which would you realize. If you, if you do have it happen to especially on an aircraft, something like this, say something as soon as you see it.
Lucy Jabbour: Am I right here like embarrassment? Sure. But you're not in trouble.
Jay Sorah: No, absolutely. Because again, things happen, things malfunction, you know, there are accidents that happen, you know, so it's not a malicious thing. If you have something you're not sure whether it falls in that category, do the ask. Ask your air carrier, you know, they're there to help you.
Lucy Jabbour: Thank you so much for your time today. Jay, your information was really helpful.
Jay Sorah: Well, thank you, Lucy. I appreciate it. Again, if I can plug PackSafe please go to F-A-A PackSafe. To get to get the last part of your question that you put on there. And that is the FAA has tremendous resources for people to use and one of them is PackSafe. And basically, you can go in there buy commodities, take a look to see if any of the items that you have are considered to be a hazardous item. If so, if you're able to, to put it on carry on if you're able to put it a checked baggage. And so please do check PackSafe ahead of time, before you get there. Also talk to your air carrier, don't be afraid to ask these questions. When in doubt, ask. Please email us at firstname.lastname@example.org. We want you want you to have a safe wonderful air experience. And pretty much everybody in the industry that’s their same focus. Keeping the airplane safe and everybody happily along their way.
FAA Vapes PSA: Whether you call it a stick, a vape, or an e-cig – when it’s time to fly - turn it off and keep it in your pocket or carry-on luggage. Do not put your electronic cigarette in your checked bags. Just like regular cigarettes, you are not allowed to use electronic cigarettes in an aircraft. You are also not allowed to charge your electronic cigarette in an aircraft. Why? Your e-cigarette includes a lithium-battery or heating element that could overheat or cause a fire. So, next time you fly with an e-cigarette, turn it off, keep it with you in the cabin, and do not use or charge it during the flight. Learn how to keep yourself and your fellow passengers safe at faa.gov/packsafe.
Deja Leigh: Thanks for listening today. We hope you’ve learned how to keep yourself and those around you safe when traveling with lithium batteries.
Lucy Jabbour: And while lithium incidents don’t happen all the time, they may happen more often than you think. As Jay said – when it comes to a failing battery - if you see it, hear it, or smell it on your flight – don’t wait, say something immediately to your flight attendant.
Deja Leigh: And to make sure you’re not introducing other hazardous goods onto an airplane, check out faa.gov/hazmat, that’s H-A-Z-M-A-T, and click on PackSafe. If you liked this episode, leave us a review and share the episode with a friend, because we all play a role in aviation safety.
Voiceover: The Air Up There is a production of the Federal Aviation Administration. For a transcript of this episode and to follow us on social media for the latest aviation safety news and guidance, visit faa.gov/podcast. That’s faa.gov/podcast.