The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) warns that e-cigarettes in checked luggage could pose a fire hazard in airports.

In a safety alert issued to airline operators on Friday, the U.S. aviation regulator says the lithium batteries used to heat the popular tobacco alternative could be the cause of fires in airports. The lithium cells are used to turn liquid nicotine into nicotine-laced vapor. If inadvertently heated, the e-cigarette could possibly ignite a fire in the cargo hold in mid-flight, posing grave danger to all passengers and crew onboard.

The FAA recommends that airlines tweak their policies to require passengers to bring their e-cigarettes in their carry-on bags instead of placing them inside their checked luggage. The agency stopped short of banning e-cigarettes from airlines and airports altogether, saying that it will be easier to monitor e-cigarettes and extinguish fires in the aircraft cabin.

"Carriage of e-cigarettes in the passenger cabin address this safety risk by ensuring that if an incident does occur, it can be immediately identified and mitigated," says (pdf) the FAA.

Two recent incidents triggered the FAA's latest guidelines. The first one took place at Boston's Logan Airport in August, when an e-cigarette in a checked bag burst into flames inside the aircraft's cargo hold while the plane was getting ready to take off from the tarmac, forcing the rapid evacuation of passengers and crew. This was followed by another incident earlier this month, when a checked bag that missed its flight at the Los Angeles International Airport caught fire.

"These incidents and several others occurring outside of air transportation have shown that e-cigarettes can overheat and cause fires when the heating element is accidentally activated or left on," the FAA says.

Furthermore, modifying e-cigarettes, such as using them to create personal vaporizers or using after-market batteries, heating elements, and vaporizing components, could increase the risk of e-cigarettes causing fires.

The FAA's safety alert comes as the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAP), an agency of the United Nations, issued an electronic bulletin recommending that aircraft passengers carry their e-cigarettes inside the cabin. The agency says it is considering its possible actions after several fire incidents have occurred in airlines due to e-cigarettes.

However, the Air Line Pilots Association (ALPA), the largest union of pilots in North America, believes the FAA's recommendation did not go far enough to protect passengers from the risks of e-cigarettes. In a statement sent to Bloomberg Businessweek, an ALPA spokesperson calls for the complete prohibition of all devices powered by lithium batteries in the cargo hold.

"ALPA has a long standing vocal opposition to the carriage of lithium metal batteries, such as those contained in e-cigarettes, in the cargo hold," ALPA says

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