As the US Department of Transportation proposes stricter rules on the shipments of lithium batteries, a close look at Federal Aviation Administration data finds that midair incidents involving batteries have been both rare and, apart from one catastrophe, relatively benign.
Between March 1991 and September 2009, there have been a total of 109 incidents globally involving batteries that exploded, caught fire, or emitted smoke, according to FAA data (downloadable as a PDF here) collected over the past two decades and analysed by Computerworld.
The incidents resulted in 51 injuries and one death. Many came from a single August 1999 disaster, in which one passenger died, 13 suffered critical injuries, and 14 had minor injuries, after a Taiwanese passenger jet exploded upon landing. An investigation determined that gasoline from a leaky canister carried in an overhead passenger bin ignited sparks from a nearby 12 volt motorcycle battery.
Excluding that horrific disaster, fewer than two documented injuries have been reported per year, all of them minor and most of them involving loading dock workers, and not passengers or in-flight air crew. Fifteen incidents in the last two decades were serious enough to warrant a plane to reroute or perform an emergency landing, according to FAA data.
For instance, in 2008, there were nine battery accidents resulting in two minor injuries. There were 3.3 billion lithium batteries transported in 2008, according to the Portable Rechargeable Battery Association, on 77 million flights, according to the Airports Council International, including 56 million passenger and combination passenger/cargo flights.
Based on that data, one's chances of being on the same flight with someone who suffers a minor injury due to a malfunctioning battery was about one in 28 million in 2008. By comparison, the one year odds of dying from a car accident in the US are one in 6,584, according to the National Safety Council (download PDF).