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Saturday, March 2, 2024

Why Does TSA Care About Your Electric Toothbrush (Lithium ion) Battery?

Detection is key to stopping fires..or worse…in airplane cabins and cargo bins

Numerous incidents on airplanes have had Transportation Security Administration Transportation Security Officers (TSOs) on high alert about an exceedingly common item: Lithium (Li) ion batteries. Found in everything from laptops, phones, tablets and even electric toothbrushes.  First commercialized in 1991, they have typically been used to power ordinary day-to-day items and the properties associated with lithium batteries—their lightweight, energy density, long lifespan and high performance—have contributed to making them a very attractive solution for manufacturers. In recent years, their use in larger electric vehicles such as electric scooters and cars has led to a rapid acceleration of the demand for lithium batteries—and in turn their use worldwide.  Global demand for lithium batteries is predicted to increase seven-fold between 2022 and 2030. 


Despite increasing demand, lithium batteries are considered to have a higher risk for fire hazard, especially if they are damaged, aging, or not properly stored or electrically shielded. A rising battery temperature can cause a thermal runaway when battery heat generation cannot be controlled. This is especially problematic when batteries are carried onto airplanes. In 2014, the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) reported 9 incidents involving lithium battery instigated fires on airplanes, airports, and cargo facilities. In 2022, just eight years later, this number had risen to 74. These incidents range from thermal events occurring in-flight or at screening checkpoints and involving devices such as e-cigarettes or laptops. While incidents happening in-flight or at the airport can be quickly detected, fires in the hold of the aircraft or on all-cargo flights could bear more serious consequences. 

To manage the risk caused by lithium batteries on airplanes, manufacturers of security screening and detection equipment have developed advanced detection solutions. These new software solutions use artificial intelligence to automatically detect lithium batteries based on shape recognition and could be used as “add-ons” to hold baggage screening equipment already in use today. While spare lithium batteries are usually prohibited in checked baggage, there is currently no clear requirement that aviation operators use these solutions to detect lithium batteries.

Although automated detection solutions are mature and available, the pace of deployment has been slow for a variety of reasons.  First, airports and airlines are concerned that looking for lithium batteries in hold baggage could result in additional alarms, thereby slowing throughput and increasing cost.  Second, lithium battery detection sits at the nexus between safety and security, which complicates matters for regulators.  Lithium batteries are considered one of many hazardous materials in the aviation domain, which are regulated by safety agencies.  However, baggage screening systems that could detect them fall under security regulations.  Given this, political responsibility is not well defined.   Finally, lithium batteries come in all shapes and sizes, so defining a detection standard and a related requirement is not entirely straightforward.

Guidance materials have been developed by entities such as the FAA, the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), the European Union Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) and the International Air Transport Association (IATA) with regards to the transport of dangerous goods by air—for example, looking at processes for recognizing non-compliant dangerous goods shipments. However, there is currently no intention to mandate automated detection in hold baggage or for cargo.

Even without a mandate, there are opportunities to buy down risk.  First, collecting additional data on the operational impact of automated lithium battery detection solutions could reassure operators and encourage them to invest more widely in these new solutions. In this regard, an ongoing EASA project on the “Detection of Lithium Batteries using security screening equipment” could drive further momentum. In addition, raising awareness among passengers could bear fruit if it were to limit the quantity of batteries transported by commercial aviation.  This would not, however, solve the problem in cargo. A potential solution for air cargo could be to mandate the use of sealed fireproof containers, which would minimize the effects of explosions.  Finally, commercial and all-cargo operators proactively collaborating with safety and security regulators through joint working groups to incentivize – rather than require – operators to upgrade hold baggage screening systems with lithium battery detection capabilities seems necessary.   Regardless of approach, it’s time to agree on a standard and move out with global and national requirements.

  1.  Lithium-ion batteries – statistics & facts | Statista
  2. Workbook: LithiumBatteries (dot.gov)
  3. https://www.faa.gov/sites/faa.gov/files/hazmat/packsafe/resources/Airline_passengers_and_batteries.pdf
  4. Dangerous Goods Regulations for Air Transportation | Federal Aviation Administration (faa.gov); Dangerous Goods | EASA (europa.eu)
  5. https://www.easa.europa.eu/en/research-projects/detection-lithium-batteries-using-security-screening-equipment#group-research-project-details
Anne Marie Pellerin and Rose Marengo
Anne Marie Pellerin and Rose Marengo
Anne Marie Pellerin is founder and Managing Partner of LAM LHA, a consulting firm with offices in Paris, France and Washington, DC providing advisory services in the fields of aviation security and passenger facilitation. LAM LHA works with some of the aviation industry’s most innovative stakeholders to drive impactful change. Ms. Pellerin spent six years as a U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Representative at the U.S. Embassy in Paris, with regional responsibility including representation to the European Civil Aviation Conference (ECAC). In this role, she was actively involved in government to government negotiations related to aviation security matters and spearheaded multiple innovative efforts to include the first national cargo recognition exercise between the United States and France (leading to a broader European framework), the creation of a Behaviour Detection in Aviation Security Working Group with ECAC, and a multilateral initiative to test the effectiveness of REST/RASCO canine techniques. Previously, Ms. Pellerin was the Executive Director of the U.S. Transportation Security Administration’s (TSA) Checkpoint of the Future Program in Washington, DC. In this role and reporting directly to the TSA Administrator, she launched numerous innovative initiatives to include mobile boarding pass, differentiated lanes (family, expert, casual), and a completely redesigned checkpoint model at Baltimore Washington Airport showcasing next generation technologies and processes. These efforts set the stage for TSA’s Pre-Check Program and the use of Security Scanners and dual-view x-ray across U.S. airports. Prior to TSA, Ms. Pellerin worked as a Vice President at Quorum Strategies and as a consultant with former U.S. Secretary of Defense William Cohen at The Cohen Group. || Rose joined LAM LHA’s Paris office as a Consultant in September 2021. She has since been involved in a range of market research, regulatory advisory and advocacy projects, supporting a diverse group of clients in the areas of security, seamless travel, and sustainability. Prior to joining LAM LHA, Rose coordinated activities for the Security Screening and Technologies Working Group of the European Organization for Security (EOS) in Brussels. This experience provided her with an in-depth understanding of key drivers and priorities across industry stakeholders in the aviation and urban security domains. Before joining EOS, Rose benefitted from research and policy stints with both the European Parliament and The European University Institute in Florence. Rose has undergraduate degrees in History, German, and Philosophy from the University of Durham and a master’s degree in modern European History from the University of Cambridge.

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