Battery fire on plane points to danger in the sky

Friday, February 2, 2018
Battery fire on plane points to danger in the sky
Exploding lithium batteries are scary enough when it happens at home - what if you're in a plane?

SAN FRANCISCO (KGO) -- Exploding lithium batteries are scary enough when it happens at home - what if you're in a plane? The Federal Aviation Administration says the incidents of exploding or smoking batteries are on the rise at airports and on planes.

The latest incident happened aboard a Russian passenger jet late Wednesday, when a cellphone charger pack burst into flames, setting the seat on fire and filling the cabin with smoke.

Luckily, the fire broke out after the plane had landed. No one was hurt. But some passengers panicked as the aisles clogged with folks trying to get out. You can hear passengers coughing from the smoke. Some escaped through emergency chutes. Others stayed to help a flight attendant put out the flames passing her their water bottles to douse the exploded charger.

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Airline safety experts say fires inside an airplane cabin so far have not been blamed for any crashed planes or deaths. However, lithium batteries are suspected of causing two cargo planes to crash.

As a result, the FAA is limiting what types of batteries consumers are allowed to pack in their checked baggage.

RELATED: Laptop battery causes fire on SFO bound flight

And incidents are on the rise. In the United States, the FAA reported 47 incidents of batteries catching fire or emitting smoke in 2017 alone. That compares with 31 incidents in 2016.

Airline safety experts say the numbers are expected to keep rising as our use of lithium-battery powered devices goes up. Everything from cellphones, tablets, laptops and e-cigarettes get charged by the risky batteries.

7 ON YOUR SIDE: Lithium battery explosions unpredictable

"Every lithium battery has the chance of catching fire,'' said Prof. Nitash Balsara, physicist at UC Berkeley, who is studying ways to make batteries safer. Incidents are rare but with millions more devices comes a higher risk.

"It's completely unpredictable,'' Balsara said. "There's no way to tell that this is the one (battery) that is going to be trouble."

Right now, the FAA bans passengers from packing e-cigarettes or spare batteries from their checked luggage. These are among the types that are most at risk of exploding. Passengers may pack personal devices like laptops and cellphones in a checked bag, but airlines prefer you carry them on board. That's because a crew cannot do anything about a battery fire in the cargo hold. But they can put out a fire in the cabin. And they're trained to do so.

If you'd like to read the FAA's synopsis of 191 battery incidents at airports and in planes, click here.

Click here for a look at more stories by Michael Finney and 7 On Your Side.

Written and produced by Renee Koury