Pilots say lithium battery cargo doesn't fly after fires. Are laptop bans next?

Could an exploding laptop or cell phone battery cause a plane crash? That's the contention of the Airline Pilots Association, the trade union for airline pilots in the U.S. The union Tuesday called for a ban of all shipments of lithium-ion batteries. Citing three incidents that occurred in the past two months, the union asked the U.S. government to stop all shipments of lithium-ion batteries on passenger and cargo aircraft pending a new set of safety regulations. The incidents took place in Honolulu, Minneapolis-Saint Paul and Santo Domingo in the Dominican Republic, and involved smoke, fire or burning materials during flight.

This isn't the first time that battery fires have caused problems on airlines. In 2006, a battery fire aboard a DC-8 in Philadelphia was severe enough to prompt the National Transportation Safety Board to call for tighter oversight of these types of batteries and reclassification of these items as dangerous goods. "The evidence of a clear and present danger is mounting. We need an immediate ban on these dangerous goods to protect airline passengers, crews, and cargo," said First Officer Mark Rogers, director of the pilot union's Dangerous Goods Programs in a prepared statement.

Indeed, exploding and flaming laptop and camera batteries have become a relatively common occurrence. Sony Corp. (SNE) has issued several recalls of units using its laptop batteries. Dell (DELL), HP (HPQ) and LG have also issued battery recalls. Two weeks ago, rumors of exploding batteries swirled about Apple (AAPL) iPhones after reports of two incidents of the hot-selling smartphones bursting into flames or exploding.

The pilot union thus far has not called for restrictions on what sorts of consumer electronics items passengers can bring on to planes. That said, a single bad fire on a passenger flight -- particularly one resulting in casualties -- could launch calls for a blanket ban on use of lithium-ion powered devices in the air. iPods, iPhones and laptops would all be turned off.

At present, the pilots union seems more concerned with larger fires of multiple batteries, which can burn at temperatures of 1000 degrees Farenheit or greater. Such high heats are sufficient to melt metal -- obviously a problem for an airplane in flight.
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