More of us are flying with gadgets than ever before, but the Lithium batteries which power these handy devices also pose risks of fire that worry the aviation industry.
As reported by Aircraft Interiors International Magazine, a fire in the overhead compartment onboard KLM flight KL875 on March 15, originating from the battery of a TV crew’s drone unit, raises questions once again of how aviation can manage a situation over which it has no control: the decision by electronics manufacturers to use volatile Lithium-Ion batteries in their equipment rather than safer, equally effective and inexpensive alternatives.
As SITA has reported, and anecdotal evidence would confirm, we are entering a new age: the age of the 3-D (three device) traveller. More of us are carrying smartphones or iPads or laptops with us on the plane (and some of us fly with all three) not to mention the extra carriage of spare batteries and other electronic devices which make flying more pleasant–until they pose a risk to cabin safety.
In reality, all that aviation can do for now, short of lobbying for tech firms to reconsider the chemical compounds they use to build batteries in the first place, is to train cabin crew to deal with these emergencies and to ban the carriage of Lithium-Ion batteries as freight onboard their commercial aircraft. This ban has already begun. In the 56th edition of its Dangerous Goods Regulations, IATA expressly prohibits carriage of these dangerous batteries as cargo on passenger aircraft.
Qantas and Jetstar have become the latest airlines to say they will no longer carry Lithium-Ion batteries as cargo, and these moves are to be applauded. Carriage of Lithium-Ion batteries resulting in uncontrollable fires in the cargo hold have already led to deadly incidents for Cargo airlines.
Considering the nature of the technology business, and the distances to travel for equipment to arrive at its assembly destination, perhaps the exclusion of these materials from air transport entirely will push tech companies to finally adopt safer alternatives. If existing Lithium battery compounds become too difficult to get to the assembly line on time, tech companies might be motivated to take alternate compounds more seriously.
It should be noted that the risks of these batteries are not exclusive to 30,000 ft and that serious injuries have also occurred to device-users on the ground.
For now, there are three easy steps you can take to reduce the risks these devices pose to you and to your fellow passengers.
1) Never pack spare batteries into checked luggage. These are banned in the cargo hold. While cabin fires are distressing, they are rare, the devices on fire are not generally in the proximity of other lithium batteries (the bulk effect is most dangerous) and cabin crew are trained to handle small fires when they do occur.
2) Check your equipment for damage before you fly with it. Damaged Lithium batteries are more likely to cause problems than units in good condition.
3) Don’t place your portable electronic devices on the seat cushions or other places where they might slip between the gaps and become crushed in seat mechanisms. This is especially applicable to business class and first class seats where the power mechanisms to adjust the seat position have crushed batteries before, resulting in fires.
And, as CASA says, if you don’t know what to do, ask. Check-in agents know the regulations and Cabin Crew are well trained to handle a number of incidents onboard.