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After Another Smartphone Fire Causes Flight Diversion, CASA Raises Concerns Over Lithium-Ion Once Again

The risks of runaway Lithium-Ion batteries continue to plague aviation, prompting the Civil Aviation Safety Authority (CASA), Australia, to caution readers of its Flight Safety magazine on the proper handling of these electronics once again.

The Flight Safety article specifically mentions a recent incident the flight diversion of a British Airways Boeing 787-800, operating flight BA18 from Seoul to London Heathrow, with 205 passengers onboard, which diverted to Irkutsk, Russia, after the battery of a passenger’s smartphone “suffered an obvious thermal runaway and emitted smoke,” according to a report by the Aviation Herald.

Flight Safety reported on the risks of smartphone batteries earlier this year after new incidents onboard Air France and KLM flights caused similar troubles. Like other aviation authorities concerned over the increased risks of these devices, CASA has also produced a dedicated video on YouTube to educate the public on the risks of Lithium Ion batteries and the proper handling of electronic devices, and their power supplies, when flying.

While Aviation Rings Alarm Bells, Tech Ignores the Ringtone

Industry media has repeatedly reported on the risks of these fires, and the IATA Cabin Safety Group has kept this concern on its agenda.

Potential risks have also been reported by mainstream media recently when Boeing sent out a warning to airlines against the carriage of Lithium Ion batteries as cargo. When that report came out, I had a troubling conversation on Twitter with industry experts who revealed a specific ruling by the U.S. Congress which prevents the FAA from taking more aggressive actions to push for a ban on Lithium Ion as cargo or to take other actions which might prompt the tech sector to think seriously about whether it’s high time to reconsider the basic make-up of these power supplies. To me, this is simple tech lobbying winning over concerns about aviation safety. This political play is only accepted because the public is uninformed.

Thanks to well-trained cabin crew and flight crew, the most recent incident was manageable once again. The disrupted flight was able to take off again safely once the onboard fire was addressed, within a few hours. There is no such protection for cargo fires, though these have already taken the lives of pilots. It’s not hard to imagine that, were an accident onboard a passenger aircraft ever determined to stem from a Lithium-Ion thermal runaway incident, the world would be clamouring to know why aviation didn’t do something sooner.

So here it is, for the record, in advance: aviation was aware and tried to raise awareness. Aviation did not have the means to force the technology sector to make the right decision, in good conscience, to switch to safer batteries. Tech did, however, want to capitalise on aviation’s infrastructure to get its parts where they needed to be on time. Somebody somewhere snuck a problematic shipment onboard a passenger aircraft with tragic circumstances.

If something goes horribly wrong, I suspect the tech sector won’t take responsibility. Everyone will demand that aviation take some sort of corrective action and that the focus will be on how such a shipment could be snuck onboard a plane by a shipper.

Technology companies may be committed to these volatile and unpredictable batteries for business reasons, but by continuing their use, technology companies are not acting in a manner that demonstrates concern for the well-being of consumers. There are concerns over these batteries both on the ground and in the air.

There are also alternative battery compositions which are safer to the everyday consumer and to airline operations.

Get Charged Up and Push for Change

It’s time that we change the narrative on this issue and call tech to task for its inaction. Aviation has abundant safety regulations. Those regulations have abated the risks in the skies for now, but we’re gambling on passengers taking warnings seriously and on technology suppliers to be honest about their cargo.

I feel this is an issue we can resolve as consumers before a tragic circumstance causes further loss of life. Let’s demand better batteries for our gadgets. We’ve waited long enough.

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