As the fervor surrounding the potentially deadly risks of consuming e-cigarettes and other vape products subsides somewhat, another e-cig scare is entering the spotlight. This time, however, the concern isn’t what people are inhaling, but the device itself. Cheap, poorly-made vape pens and e-cigs typically use cheap, poorly-made lithium-ion batteries. And those batteries have a knack for catching on fire. Some have even blown up in people’s faces. That’s why the president of the Association of Flight Attendants wants the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to ban e-cigarettes from planes entirely.
The FAA already bans travelers from putting portable devices with lithium-ion batteries in their checked luggage. But travelers can still carry them in their carry-on bags and personal items. Flight attendants want that rule to change. They say frequent battery-sparked fires are turning them into emergency firefighters. And they’re worried that the next fire could be catastrophic.
Flaming batteries have made it into the news before. Famously, the FAA banned travelers from carrying Samsung Galaxy Note 7 smartphones due to a widespread issue with them catching on fire. But lithium-batteries are in everything these days, in virtually every device people use and carry. They also vary widely in terms of quality and reliability, with the cheapest ones prone to what technicians call “thermal runaway.” The battery starts to heat up, can’t stop, and eventually catches fire or explodes. Put otherwise, these batteries are each potential incendiary devices or explosives. Not what anyone wants to think about at 30,000 feet.
The FAA does have policies and regulations in place to minimize the risks associated with cheap rechargeable batteries. In fact, if you ever ship an item with a lithium-ion battery, carriers are required to ship it via ground transportation. But passengers can still take batteries on the plane with them. It would be tough to implement a policy banning everyone’s phones, tablets, computers, headphones, etc.
To put the concern in perspective, the FAA says it has received at least 265 reports of incidents involving batteries—since 1991. That data lists some 50 e-cigarette related smoke or fire incidents at airports or on planes. That number exceeds the number of reported incidents for laptops and tablets, battery chargers, spare batteries and cell phones.
The FAA requires flight attendants to receive firefighting training so they can handle battery fires on a flight. Typically, dealing with a fire means tossing a smoking or flaming device into a fire-retardant bag. In the luggage hold, however, planes’ fire extinguishing systems aren’t strong enough to put out the intense heat from a flaming lithium-ion battery. “How about we just not have these e-cigarettes on the plane at all,” Association of Flight Attendants President Sara Nelson told CBS News.
The Flight Safety Foundation agrees that the cheap lithium-ion batteries in e-cigarettes pose a serious concern. But the organization also believes a ban wouldn’t make sense. The FAA concurs. “Because of the wide variety of battery issues that can occur, it is important that airlines have the flexibility to assess and address the risks involved in each individual situation,” an FAA spokesperson told “CBS This Morning.”
So far, there have been no catastrophic incidents involving batteries catching fire on airplanes. But with e-cigarettes, warn concerned flight attendants, it’s only a matter of time. Amid ongoing efforts to reduce vape-related illnesses and deaths, the risk of a major incident involving e-cig devices seems like a relevant concern. For now, however, the FAA is still letting travelers take their vape and e-cig devices on planes.
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