Lithium battery eyed in emergency landing of Jet Blue plane bound for San Francisco

SAN FRANCISCO (KTVU) -- The emergency landing Tuesday night of a San Francisco-bound airplane has raised new concern about lithium batteries and the risk they pose to airline passengers.

Authorities say the lithium battery in a laptop computer began smoking while it was stored in the backpack of a a Jet Blue passenger. The airplane had departed New York and was en route to San Francisco International Airport when the pilot decided to make an unscheduled landing in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

"You could see smoke and smell it," passenger Kayley Honniball said. "The backpack was partially burned and so was the cord of the portable charger."

assenger's backpack ound in most every consumer electronics device worldwide. I've done several investigations into the powerful, long lasting batteries that, once in a while, go haywire in dangerous ways. Battery makers try to store as much energy as they can in the smallest batteries they can. That lays the foundation for runaway power cells. 

"It was pretty scary to see smoke on the plane," said said Alan Honniball, who was also on the flight. "We're at 35,000 feet and all of a sudden we hear an announcement and we look back in row 25 and we saw everybody standing up and smoke coming around. We didn't know what was going on."

When the time the plane landed in Michigan, the airplane's crew had already extinguished the smoke and fire.

"There was no fire," said passenger Trevor Smith. "It was just that a battery was overheating. From where I was, I couldn't see anything," said passenger Trevor Smith.

High energy lithium batteries have been linked to several fires over the past several years. The batteries are used to power several popular consumer electronics, including laptop computers, cameras, iPads and iPods. Several tests have shown that the batteries can suddenly and without warning begin to smoke, flame or explode.

Once a fire starts, other nearby lithium batteries can easily ignite, which is why U.S. passenger planes no longer allow them in cargo shipments or in their cargo holds.  Since the early 1990s, there have been more than 150 lithium battery overheating or fires aboard passenger aircraft.