E-cigarettes a possible flight hazard

E-cigarettes have been blamed for a variety of house fires.
E-cigarettes have been blamed for a variety of house fires. Photo: Bloomberg

Airport officials are asking the Transportation Department to consider classifying e-cigarettes as hazardous materials after a Massachusetts fire marshal focuses on an e-cigarette as the possible cause of smoldering in a bag that had to be removed from a jet on Saturday night at Boston's Logan International Airport. 

Baggage handlers pulled the bag off the jet, a JetBlue flight bound for Buffalo, New York, and put it out with a hand-held extinguisher. It was not clear if the combustion had reached the stage of fire.

The episode raises the question of whether e-cigarettes that use rechargeable lithium-ion batteries should be added to the list of banned items, which already includes matches, flares and most batteries that are "spillable."

Ed Freni, director of aviation at the Massachusetts Port Authority, said it was clear that lithium-ion batteries posed a hazard.

"The more you see these type of items sold out there, the more our industry has to take a closer look at them, as we've done with other hazardous materials," he said.

Airport officials met with local Federal Aviation Administration inspectors to ask for an investigation, he said.

In Washington, a spokeswoman for the FAA said that the list of banned items was controlled by the Transportation Department's Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration. A spokesman there said his agency was waiting for a formal determination of the cause.

Jennifer Mieth, a spokeswoman for the Massachusetts fire marshal, said, "if a battery had been in the e-cigarette, it had the potential to cause a fire." She said the investigation was not complete.

Passengers on the plane, an Embraer 190, were taken off through the regular passenger door, and all the bags were removed and checked, according to the airline. The plane, which can carry 100 passengers, eventually took the fliers to Buffalo.

Thus far, concern about lithium-ion batteries has focused on the possibility that one would suffer an internal flaw that would cause it to heat up, and the heat would set off nearby batteries in a runaway reaction. A commercial shipment of 1,000 e-cigarettes was blamed for a fire on a FedEx MD-11 at the Minneapolis-St. Paul airport in August 2009.

In January 2013, a lithium-ion battery on a Japan Airlines plane ignited while the aircraft, a Boeing 787, was parked at a gate at Logan. A second episode a few days later on an All Nippon Airways flight over Japan caused 787s to be grounded for months. But those batteries were installed as part of the plane's equipment, rather than carried as cargo.

Materials that can set off fires are considered more of a risk in baggage or cargo areas than in carry-on bags because a device that caused smoke or fire would be noticed faster in an aircraft cabin. The cargo holds of passenger jets are equipped with systems to detect and fight fires, but in-flight fires are considered dangerous.

On the ground, e-cigarettes have been blamed for a variety of house fires, often while the battery is being recharged.

THE NEW YORK TIMES

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