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Flying? Carry On Those Lithium Batteries

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By Allan Holmes December 31, 2007

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If you're heading back home tomorrow on New Year's Day, you may want to take note of a new Transportation Department rule that forbids air travelers from packing loose lithium batteries (those typically used in laptops, cell phones, digital cameras and other electronic equipment) in checked luggage.

Transportation Department officials have been concerned for years that the lithium batteries can ignite a fire. The batteries can generate intense heat if a short circuit occurs, which can be caused by metal touching both battery terminals or if internal seals fail. (More on why lithium batteries ignite.) Dell Computer recalled 1.4 million laptop computer batteries in 2006 because of a fire hazard due to the batteries. Days later, Apple Computer Inc. recalled 1.8 million batteries. Recalls of lithium batteries go back years.

According to the WSJ, the rule, which goes into effect Jan.1, requires that:

travelers can bring a laptop computer, digital camera, cellphone and other equipment on board or in checked luggage if their lithium batteries are installed in the items.

And fliers can bring spare batteries in carry-on luggage if they're stored in plastic bags or if they're in the original retail packaging. But travelers can bring only as many as two such spare batteries, and each must be packed separately.

Here are some examples of airline fires linked to lithium batteries, as reported by USA Today:

On July 26, 600 people were evacuated from a San Diego office building when a FedEx package exploded. The package contained a backup power supply for a computer, a type of battery. No one was seriously injured.

Prompted by a 1999 fire in a crate of lithium batteries at Los Angeles International Airport, the FAA two years ago banned shipments of such batteries on passenger planes because they can spontaneously combust. The batteries can still be shipped on cargo flights.

A lithium camera battery burst into flames and ignited a seat on a chartered Boeing 727 on Oct. 29, 2004, FAA records show. A flight attendant extinguished the fire, and the jet returned to Raleigh-Durham International Airport.

Several aircraft accidents have been linked to hazardous cargo. Pilots of a UPS DC-8 barely landed in Philadelphia on Feb. 7 with a raging cargo fire. The National Transportation Safety Board says there is no evidence that an aircraft malfunction caused the fire, but they have not identified its cause.

Investigators found lithium-based batteries near the fire.

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