Other Incidents Involving Lithium Batteries
On April 28, 1999, a fire destroyed freight, including primary lithium batteries, on two
cargo pallets at the Northwest Airlines cargo facility at Los Angeles International Airport. The
pallets had been taken off a passenger flight from Osaka, Japan. (The airplane was a Boeing 747,
which Northwest Airlines had operated as flight 0026.) The Safety Board investigated the
accident and issued safety recommendations to both RSPA and the Federal Aviation
Administration (FAA). The recommendations asked them to evaluate the fire hazards posed by
lithium batteries in an air transportation environment and require that appropriate safety
measures be taken to protect aircraft and occupants (Safety Recommendations A-99-80 and -85,
According to RSPA, from January 1, 1989, through May 31, 2005, six other incidents in
air transportation involving lithium batteries have been reported.8 In one incident, the batteries
were damaged, but there was no evidence of fire or charring. In the other five incidents, there
was some evidence that the batteries had caused fire or charring of the packaging.
On May 24, 1989, a box of 25 lithium-ion batteries that had been transported on a
FedEx Express airplane caught fire in the FedEx Express freight sorting facility in
Memphis. The fire burned a hole “completely though the inner and through the outer
7 For more information, see “Memphis Event,” Federal Express Battery Fire Evaluation Report, Winchester,
Clinton, and DeJarnette; Hampton; Naval Surface Warfare Center, Carderock Division, West Bethesda, MD;
August 1, 2005.
8 These are incidents reported to RSPA under 49 CFR 171.16. There may be other unreported incidents.
On September 26, 1996, wires connected to eight lithium batteries (type unknown)
apparently shorted and burned a hole in their package, which was in the Airborne
Express sorting area in Wilmington, Ohio. The batteries were connected in series
inside a plastic express envelope.
On November 3, 2000, a package of primary lithium batteries in a FedEx Express
truck near Portland, Oregon, showed evidence of internal leakage and charring
around one battery.
On April 12, 2002, a fiberboard box started smoking while it was inside a FedEx
Express ULD in Indianapolis, Indiana. The box contained lithium batteries (type
unknown) that had short-circuited, starting a fire and damaging the interior of the
On August 9, 2002, a lithium-ion battery in a Samsung minicomputer/Palm Pilot
wrapped in bubble wrap inside a fiberboard box short-circuited, causing the bubble
wrap to catch fire and start to melt. The box was discovered by a sorter at the FedEx
Express hub in Los Angeles, California.
During the same period, six incidents or accidents involving lithium batteries in other
modes of transportation were reported, but only one included a fire that was directly related to
the transport of lithium batteries. On March 5, 2002, near Houston, Texas, a fiberboard box of
lithium batteries (type unknown) inside an American Freightways truck was crushed when other
freight fell on top of it. The batteries and box caught on fire.
RSPA mentioned another incident involving metallic lithium batteries in a 1999
advisory:9 (Because the incident did not happen in this country, it is not listed in the RSPA
In May 1994, while being delivered to a handling agent by road, a shipment of
small [primary] lithium batteries destined for Gatwick Airport in London,
England, was found emitting smoke from a Unit Loading Device. The shipment
consisted of batteries, approximately the size of a dime and about 5 millimeters
high, which had been tossed loosely in a box. The batteries apparently shortcircuited
when exposed battery terminal tabs came into contact with other
batteries, and subsequently started a fire that significantly damaged the shipment.
The Canadian Transportation Safety Board also is investigating an incident involving
lithium batteries. In April 2004, a flashlight began smoking in a seatback pocket on a Canadian
airplane. The flashlight became so hot that the flight attendants could not handle it without oven
mitts. The flashlight had a primary lithium battery and had been manufactured and bought in
9 Advisory Guidance; Transportation of Batteries and Devices that Contain Batteries, Docket No. RSPA-99-
5143, Federal Register, Vol. 64, Number 129, p. 36744. July 7, 1999.
On November 3, 1999, the FAA Associate Administrator for Civil Aviation Security sent
a memo to several agencies, including RSPA’s Associate Administrator for the Office of
Hazardous Materials, identifying four incidents that had happened that year that were not on
aircraft but did involve the overheating and bursting of lithium-ion batteries in automatic
external defibrillators. Additionally, the FAA has a record of 30 other incidents involving a
variety of other types of batteries that shorted and caused damage ranging from smoke to fire and
Since the August 2004 accident in Memphis, the FAA has begun investigating at least
two other fires involving lithium-ion batteries. On October 29, 2004, a fire and small explosion
involving a 9-volt lithium-ion battery occurred on a chartered flight from the Raleigh-Durham
airport in Morrisville, North Carolina, to Parkersburg, West Virginia. No one was injured, but an
aircraft seat sustained minor damage. On June 30, 2005, a package containing lithium-ion
batteries was discovered at the United Parcel Service (UPS) airfreight terminal in Ontario,
California. One of four battery packs within a package had caught fire and been completely
destroyed during transportation. The fire was out and the package cold when it was discovered.
The package containing the battery packs had flown on UPS aircraft from Shanghai, China, to
Anchorage, Alaska, and on to Ontario.
In August 2004, the Consumer Product Safety Commission recalled about 28,000
lithium-ion battery packs that LG Chem Ltd. of South Korea had manufactured for Apple
PowerBook computers. The problem was identified as an internal short, which can pose a fire
hazard. The recall was the response to four incidents: in two, the computers had caught fire; in
one, the computer had merely smoked; and in one, the odor of burning had come from the
ventilation grille. All of the batteries were lithium-ion.