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FAA warns of potentially 'catastrophic' battery explosions

The agency urges airlines to reexamine the risks associated with transporting lithium batteries as cargo.

Approaching Airplane
Michael Breuer/Radius Images/Corbis

The Federal Aviation Administration wants airlines to think twice about carrying lithium batteries. But don't worry, you're still allowed to bring your laptop and phone with you on a flight.

The FAA on Tuesday issued a safety alert urging airlines to examine the risks associated with transporting lithium batteries as cargo, including "the potential risk for a catastrophic hull loss." The alert covers batteries being transported as components and not those already inside devices such as laptops, tablets, phones or hoverboards.

The agency didn't mince words about the risks.

"FAA battery fire testing has highlighted the potential risk of a catastrophic aircraft loss due to damage resulting from a lithium battery fire or explosion," the FAA said in a press release. "Current cargo fire suppression systems cannot effectively control a lithium battery fire."

The potential dangers of lithium-ion batteries have been highlighted recently following a deluge of dramatic hoverboard fires, including some caught in videos. (Things heat up at the 1:53 mark.) But we've been living the risk of potentially deadly explosions in our pockets and laptop bags for years.

In 2004, there was a spike in the number of cell phone battery explosions, and a few years later Dell recalled millions of laptop batteries after six incidents of fire. In 2013, Boeing grounded the 787 Dreamliner airplane until it could find a way to keep its onboard lithium-ion batteries from overheating.

The FAA's recommendation shouldn't affect what airline passengers can and can't pack in their luggage, said Alison Duquette, a spokeswoman for the agency. Those rules are already in place.

Under existing FAA guidelines (PDF), airline passengers are allowed to bring lithium-ion batteries in their carry-on luggage as long as the batteries don't exceed 160 watt hours per battery. Spare lithium batteries are not allowed in checked luggage.

Airlines can enact further restrictions. In December, most major US airlines banned hoverboards from carry-on and checked baggage due to fire safety concerns.