E-cigarettes are now said to be posing an unacceptable risk on aircraft due to their lithium batteries. E-cigarettes are now said to be posing an unacceptable risk on aircraft due to their lithium batteries.

E-cigarettes should be banned from all planes as the lithium-ion batteries that power them pose an unacceptable risk, it is claimed.

The largest flight attendant union in the USA is demanding that the Federal Aviation Administration bans e-cigarettes amid fears that they often use cheaper batteries to power them.

These are more likely to fail, causing the device to go into what’s known as thermal runaway even if the e-cigarette is not being used. During thermal runaway, one cell overheating in a battery can produce enough heat – up to 900°C (1652°F) – to cause adjacent cells to overheat. This can cause a lithium battery fire to flare repeatedly.

Sara Nelson, president of the Association of Flight Attendants, said: “A lithium ion battery fire on a plane can be catastrophic. How about we just not have these e-cigarettes on the plane at all?" 

Flight attendants are trained to handle battery fires. That can involve putting the smouldering or flaming device in fire-resistant bags, which are now carried on board many planes. The most commonly used by far is the market-leading AvSax which are now on more than 15,373 aircraft operated by 75 airline companies across the world and have been used 31 times to deal with emergencies since the start of 2017. AvSax won the prestigious Queen’s Award for Enterprise in the UK in 2018.

In February 2019 spare lithium-ion batteries sparked a fire on board a flight while it was at the gate at an American airport. There have also been a couple of incidents where e-cigarettes have flared up at airports.

According to CBS News at least 265 incidents involving batteries have been reported to the FAA since 1991 and FAA data shows at least 48 e-cigarette related smoke or fire incidents at airports or on planes. That’s more incidents than laptops and tablets, cell phones, battery chargers or spare batteries. 

An FAA test video shows why lithium-ion batteries have been banned in luggage in aircraft holds. If a battery fails and goes into thermal runaway it can burn so hot that the plane’s fire suppression system can’t put it out.

The FAA said regulations require e-cigarettes, vape pens and spare batteries to be transported in carry-on bags.

It added that "because of the wide variety of battery issues that can occur it is important that airlines have the flexibility to assess and address the risks involved in each individual situation.”