The aviation industry is facing a new type of risk on commercial flights – exploding portable chargers. In February 2018, a carry-on bag containing a portable power bank exploded and caught fire on a China Southern Airlines flight, luckily before the plane left the ground. The lithium-ion battery in the portable charger caught fire, resulting in an on-board fire where the airline had to put passengers on a different flight. No matter where we go, Canadians rarely leave home without a phone or tablet. They are an important way to stay in touch with family or work, and to help pass the time while in the air or on vacation. Here’s what travellers should know about the potential risks of portable phone chargers on airplanes.

What is a portable phone charger?

For many people, utilizing gadgets for work and entertainment is almost inseparable. A portable charger, also known as a power bank, is a reusable battery that’s small enough to fit in your hand. Usually with a protective casing, it connects to any input and output source, allowing you to charge various devices (a smartphone or a laptop, for example) from almost anywhere without the need for a wall outlet. Instead, you charge it from the power storage in the portable charger by inserting the charger (or charger cable) into the device that needs power.

Some portable chargers offer charging for a single-use only. Single-use portable chargers can be handy in some situations and are good for tight budgets. Multiple-use chargers are a better choice for people who frequently need to recharge devices when away from home.

What are lithium batteries?

Modern smartphones perform many functions, replacing some of our technology. But with the active use of the smartphone, its battery does not last long. Portable chargers often use rechargeable lithium-ion batteries because they are lightweight and can carry significant charging capacity. Now, consider how many devices containing lithium batteries you are carrying at any given time. They are in our electronic devices, such as cell phones, power banks, smart watches, laptops, tablets, and even electronic cigarettes. But, did you know that lithium batteries are dangerous goods? When they suffer damage or are defective, they can heat up, catch fire or even explode due to their high energy density.

When these batteries suffer damage, the risk of problems increases. All lithium-ion batteries contain a flammable electrolyte that can short circuit, catch fire, and explode. Something as simple as a rechargeable battery cell charging too quickly can quickly cause fire hazards. Despite stringent testing requirements, battery-related fires still occur. These lithium and lithium-ion batteries are in wide and growing use today. However, they also represent a critical safety issue for the global aviation community. These batteries can end up on an aircraft as cargo, checked baggage or carried with passengers into the cabin.

They can short-circuit and ignite if:

  • They suffer damage
  • There are defects
  • They are packaged/packed incorrectly
  • Exposed to extreme temperatures

The resulting fires from portable chargers can burn as hot as 1,100 degrees, which is the melting point of aluminum.

Can a portable phone charger or power bank be brought onto a plane?

A portable charger works on the principle that it is charged separately from the phone and stores a certain amount of charge itself. The portable charger’s design allows for a certain maximum amount of charge. But with constant or inappropriate use or storage, they can easily become a fire hazard. According to Dr. Wang Yihua, Senior Lecturer with Republic Polytechnic’s School of Engineering, “Lithium batteries are known to produce dangerous heat levels, cause ignition, short circuit very easily and cause inextinguishable fires.” This is why spare lithium batteries, like power banks, are not allowed in checked baggage to reduce the risk of lithium battery fires on flights.

Airline restrictions for portable phone chargers

Today, most airlines have specific restrictions on the transportation of power banks and other chargers. There are restrictions for both hand luggage and stored luggage. Here are some tips on transporting your phone charger safely while flying:

Do not pack your portable charger (power pack) in hold luggage

Taking your portable phone charger (power pack) on a plane is fine, but just remember to pack it in your hand luggage. Do not put them in your hold luggage, as this is not permitted and can result in your luggage not being loaded.

Leave some charge in your power pack

Many airlines will still require you to prove an electrical device, such as phone or tablet, can be switched on before you can take it on board as hand luggage. So, the same is likely to apply to portable phone chargers (power packs). Always ensure units contain charge as you will not be able to pack them in your hold luggage as an alternative way to carry them.

For all Air Canada flights, a maximum of two individually-protected spare lithium-ion batteries with a rating of 100 Wh (but not exceeding 160 Wh) may be carried per passenger in carry-on baggage only*, pending approval by airport agents.

Guidelines for batteries

Most batteries are generally safe for air travel. Infrequently, batteries can short-circuit and overheat. In some cases, overheating can cause sparks or a fire. The Canadian Air Transport Security Authority (CATSA) provides tips for travelling with batteries, including how to properly pack spare batteries:

  • Keep all batteries and electronic devices containing batteries on you or packed in your carry-on baggage.
  • Not all airlines allow lithium batteries carried in personal devices, such as laptops or cell phones in checked baggage.
  • Not all airlines allow alkaline batteries (e.g. AAA, AA, C, D, 9-volt, etc.) carried in checked baggage, either. Please consult your airline for more information.
  • Do not carry damaged or recalled batteries on the plane.

To check if your portable charger is safe or has been recalled, please click here.

When embarking on your next flight, remember it is important to take the proper precautions. When carrying portable phone chargers for your mobile devices, be sure to pack them in your carry-on luggage only. Only use chargers and cables that are specifically designed for the device, avoiding cheap or counterfeit chargers. And finally, do not leave devices unattended while charging. If you suspect that a charger may be faulty or damaged, it should be replaced immediately to prevent the risk of an explosion. Also, be sure that you have the right travel insurance for your trip. Our isure representatives can help you find the best coverage for your getaway.

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