Exploding batteries on planes: Rare and small risk

FAA documents show one death, 51 injuries in 20 years (see interactive charts, below)

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The Portable Rechargeable Battery Association favors stricter enforcement of existing rules, rather than stricter new rules, because it believes that the proposed rules would disrupt global supply chains by making U.S. regulations stricter than those of other countries. That would raise costs for manufacturers and air carriers, who would pass those higher costs on to consumers, especially online shoppers, said George Kerchner, executive director of the PRBA, adding that new rules would also create unnecessary hassles for travelers.

A source in the airline and carrier industry, who asked not to be named, agreed. "The DOT has significantly underestimated the number of packages that would be affected, and the costs that would be incurred by consumers and industries."

The DOT, the FAA and the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, however, say the new rules are needed to raise awareness, force businesses and shippers to use stronger packaging, and cut down on the number of accidents.

They are taking public comments on the proposal until mid-March (which can be viewed and commented upon here).

The DOT did not return a request for comment, and a spokesman for the House committee declined to comment.

Many of the incidents involved burning or smoking packages that were discovered during the unloading of cargo or passenger planes. Those incidents were categorized by Computerworld as having started onboard the plane, to counteract the obvious observer bias.

Even accounting for that, only about half of the incidents took place in the air -- the rest occurred on the ground. Some were caused by worker negligence. For example, in an April 1999 incident, a dockworker "mishandled one of the two pallets, causing lithium batteries to dislodge from their packaging" and leading to a fire, according to the FAA.

Cargo planes, not passenger jets, were involved in a majority of incidents (60%). Incidents involving shippers such as FedEx and UPS (25% and 12% of the total, respectively) outnumber those involving passenger airliners (United Air Lines led the pack with three). However, no airline was listed in almost half of the incidents.

Eric Lai covers Windows and Linux, desktop applications, databases and business intelligence for Computerworld. Follow Eric on Twitter at @ericylai or subscribe to Eric's RSS feed . His e-mail address is elai@computerworld.com.

Copyright © 2010 IDG Communications, Inc.

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