Just a few days ago, flights across the globe were canceled as concerns mounted over the January 7 Boeing 787 lithium-ion battery fire at Boston’s Logan International Airport. But starting Monday next week, you might not even be able to take your laptop, phone, or tablet onto some airlines’ flights, according to one expert.
“I received an IATA notification yesterday saying that Cathay Pacific is stopping all shipments of lithium-ion and lithium batteries on cargo aircraft,” battery quality assurance expert Kevin Elsdon told me tonight. “And then another one saying that British Airways was banning the shipment and carrying of lithium and lithium-ion batteries, period.”
Unfortunately, just about any electronic device you carry and use — your computer, your tablet, and your phone — uses a lithium-ion battery.
IATA is the International Air Transport Association, the trade association for most of the world’s airlines. IATA sends out bulletins regarding policy changes and updates for its member airlines to companies which manufacture, handle, and ship hazardous materials, one of which Elsdon works for. He asked that the name of the company not be revealed, as its client list includes defense agencies.
“We’re taking that announcement to mean that you cannot carry on any device that uses lithium or lithium-ion batteries, period,” Elsdon told me. “Cathay Pacific’s announcement was specific to their cargo aircraft, but British Airways and a couple other airlines simply will not permit any of these devices on their airplanes … they just did a carte blanche announcement and are not going to allow these devices on their aircraft.”
As Elsdon posted on Facebook, that means no iPads, no smartphones, and no laptop computers. In other words, it’s a complete reversal of the last decade of in-flight electronics policy. And a recipe for very, very long flights.
The Boeing 787 fire at Logan International was probably caused by an overcharge event in the aircraft’s lithium-ion batteries that power the plane’s electrical systems when on the ground. This is the first time that lithium-ion batteries have ever been used in a commercial aircraft, according to the battery manufacturer’s website. Overcharging any battery can cause overheating or even fires, but batteries are supposed to be designed with safety circuits containing an over-voltage cutoff. Somehow, apparently, that got missed in this battery.
Not all airlines — even cargo airlines — are adopting the new procedures. Fedex is the largest dangerous goods shipper in the world, and that company has no plans to change its rules.
“I talked to the head of their dangerous goods division and he shrugged this shoulders, says ‘I guess that means more money for us,’” Elsdon said.
And while it’s likely that the overall ban from British Airways and other airlines will be revised at some point, some people may be caught in the crossfire:
“My dad is back in England at a funeral,” Elsdon told me. “He has his laptop and iPhone, and I’m hoping he’ll be able to get them home.”
Lithium-ion batteries are listed as dangerous goods on Cathay Pacific’s and other airlines’ websites, and have been the cause of recalls for other products such as Fisker Automotive’s Karma electric vehicles. The Chevrolet Volt has had similar issues, and the batteries were blamed for a $5 million fire at a General Motors testing lab last year. Laptops are not immune, as a Dell laptop demonstrated in 2006 by burning and exploding at a conference in Japan.
That said, lithium-ion batteries are in just about everything we use, and are safe when designed and treated well.
“This is what I call a knee-jerk reaction from the airport authority,” Elsdon told me. “The amount of incidents is very small, and 90 percent of them are caused by the people loading them on the aircraft. There are only a very few cases where it’s actually happened in a laptop.”
Still, if you’re flying British Airways in the next few days, it might make some sense to phone and double-check whether your laptop or phone will be allowed on the flight with you.
VentureBeat has contacted IATA and British Airways for comment, and will update this post when we hear back.
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