GA Should Consider Why Airlines are Banning Smart Bags

Lithium ion battery fires demand a bucket of cold water.

baggage
As airlines ban smart bags over concerns with the lithium ion batteries, GA pilots would be wise to take similar precautions.Pixabay

If there’s a road warrior in your house or office, whether they hand over their luggage to the CSR at an airline terminal, pile their belongings into the rear baggage area on a chartered King Air, or even their own Cirrus SR-22, the worst Christmas gift this year is probably going to be a smart bag, the luggage that includes lithium ion batteries and USB ports capable of charging a smart phone or a tablet device.

Southwest Airlines this week joined the growing list of commercial carriers banning smart bags unless the batteries can be easily separated from the bag. Southwest’s restriction becomes effective January 1, 2018.

While there’s never been much mention of GA aircraft and lithium ion batteries, operators would do well to heed decisions being handed down by Part 121 carriers in their own operations. Lithium ion battery fires are still breaking out, which is why the airlines want customers to carry the batteries into the cabin where cabin crew can keep a close eye out for fires that might erupt.

At issue for the airlines and GA operators of course is not just that these batteries may ignite, but that traditional fire extinguishers are not equipped to handle such a blaze. A lithium ion battery fire is essentially a thermal runaway event generating increasing amounts of heat.

The only known way of extinguishing these fires is by dousing them with water to cool the unit and halt the ongoing chain reaction. Airliner cargo fire extinguishers can't handle this chore. There are thermal bags that claim to be capable of smothering such a fire, but that means the PIC of a GA airplane must be close to the battery should a fire erupt. Grabbing a blazing battery with bare hands is also one of the drawbacks unless the thermal pouches gloves are also close at hand.

Ask yourself how you’re going to extinguish a lithium ion battery fire while acting as PIC on a flight when your smart luggage is sitting beneath a few others in the baggage compartment. So, just like the airlines are demanding, keep any lithium ion batteries where you can keep a close eye on them, just in case. Keeping an extra liter of bottled water nearby as well is also a pretty good idea.