When catching a flight from Rome to London last year with easyJet, I was forced to remove my lithium powered laptop from my hold luggage. This isn’t, however, the airline’s official policy – which states only spare batteries are banned from checked-in luggage.
After a stern telling off from the check-in manager – a question came to mind… Are passengers made aware of the risks as much as they should be? In this case too, one might wonder whether staff are fully aware of their own dangerous goods policies.
Lithium batteries, in rare circumstances, can cause intense heat of up to 540 degrees Celsius. If this were to happen in the aircraft hold, due to the extent of the heat, fire suppression systems on board could well be deemed useless – and it simply would become a race against time to get on the ground, quickly.
But how do we make passengers more aware of these risks? There’s very little stopping travellers from being less understanding than I was, or even simply not disclosing any packed batteries. It’s a difficult situation because we can’t promote the risks in the same way as, for example, tobacco companies are being forced to promote their own. Making a habit of that would send travel demand off a cliff.
There have been many fascinating accident cases involving lithium batteries. The air cargo market is obviously at the most risk – a UPS 747 crashed over the UAE in 2010 after a battery fire, killing all on board. The FAA predict that roughly 4 of every 6 new freighter crashes are likely to be caused by lithium batteries.
In the past 2 years the FAA have also reported more than 30 incidents of batteries becoming unstable inside the cabin – including battery packs, mobiles, laptops and e-cigarettes. In all of these cases, if the devices had been in the belly of the aircraft the situation could’ve been a whole lot worse.
One particularly notorious incident occurred on British Airways flight 2167 from Gatwick to Tampa earlier this year. The aircraft was forced to divert to Bermuda after a phone fell into the reclining seat and caught alight – luckily causing no injuries or fatalities.
The dangers are clear and must be mitigated as much as possible. In almost all of the reported cabin incidents, fire containment bags were vital in suppressing flames or smoke. It definitely appears most flight crew are well trained in handling similar incidents, as they should be.
The first step in preventing in-hold incidents clearly needs to be the situation I found myself in. Check-in crews must ask every passenger if their bag contains any lithium batteries. It’s vital. Technology within airports must be able to detect all electronics within luggage and be able to detect signs of excess heat and smoke. Baggage should also be handled with care to minimise the risks of damage – though this should be a given (unfortunately in many cases baggage handlers neglect to consider the care factor).
I personally believe that regardless of flying or not, the dangers of lithium batteries need to be promoted more in general. It doesn’t have to be done in a way that would be tied to aviation nor diminish travel demand. It simply needs to become common knowledge that these electronic devices, which are continuously growing in number worldwide, provide a significant danger if mishandled or unstable.
It’s an interesting topic which would garner many viewpoints – in my eyes making passengers aware of the risks is hugely important and must be done in a subtle yet effective way. What’s more vital however is airports taking the risks into their own hands and improving their processes to almost ensure no lithium devices make their way into the hold – because if the risk isn’t mitigated as thoroughly as it should be, sooner or later we will suffer the consequences.