Flight attendants decry 'catastrophic' fire risk of e-cigs

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ARLINGTON, Va. (CBS) Lithium batteries are in most of our computers and phones but there are new concerns over the batteries in e-cigarettes when it comes to air travel. The president of the largest flight attendant union wants the FAA to ban the products from planes because their batteries could be a fire hazard.

Spare lithium-ion batteries sparked a fire in February aboard a Delta flight while it sat at the gate.

Those batteries are in e-cigarettes like the one that caught fire in the TSA line at the airport in Charleston, West Virginia.

During another fire in Savannah, Georgia, in August of last year, a quick-thinking TSA officer removed a smoking bag from security. The cause: the batter for a vape pen.

FAA data from 1991 through August 2019 show at least 48 e-cigarette-related smoke or fire incidents at airports or on planes. That's more incidents than laptops and tablets, cellphones, battery charges or spare batteries.

An FAA test video shows why lithium-ion batteries have been banned in checked luggage. If a battery fails and enters what's called thermal runaway, it can burn so hot the plane's fire suppression system can't put it out.

"A lithium-ion battery fire on a plane can be catastrophic," said Sara Nelson, the president of the Association of Flight Attendants.

Nelson says flight attendants have become firefighters on planes and the FAA needs to do more. Flight attendants are trained to handle battery fires. Many planes have fire-resistant bags that can hold a smoldering or flaming device.

"How about we just not have these e-cigarettes on a plane at all," Nelson said.

But Mark Millam with the Flight Safety Foundation says while batteries from e-cigarettes are a great concern on planes, more information is needed before an outright ban makes sense.

"A ban could happen when there is the right information that's understood about it," Millam said.

In a statement, the FAA told CBS News it has "clear regulations" on the safe transport of lithium-ion batteries. E-cigarettes, vape pens and spare batteries must be transported in carry-on bags, adding, "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."

The inventors of the lithium battery were just awarded the Nobel Prize in chemistry.