Airborne Alert: Preventing Lithium-Ion Battery Fires in Flight

The increasing number of lithium-ion battery fires on airplanes is a growing concern, with more than 70 incidents reported during U.S. flights in the previous year alone. This worrying trend is on the rise, and it’s imperative for passengers to grasp the potential dangers and know how to safeguard themselves.

Airborne Alert: Preventing Lithium-Ion Battery Fires in Flight

A Recent Incident Spotlights the Danger

A recent event during a Delta Airlines flight from Salt Lake City to Bozeman, Montana, serves as a stark reminder of the issue’s gravity. A small fire ignited in a passenger’s checked luggage in the cargo hold, caused by an overheating lithium-ion battery. Fortunately, the fire was swiftly extinguished before takeoff, preventing harm to anyone onboard. Yet, had the fire spread, it could have posed a severe risk to the aircraft’s safety.

Alarming Figures and Escalating Threats

In 2017, there were 46 documented cases of lithium-ion battery fires on planes or within airport premises, averaging to one incident every eight days. This marks a concerning uptick compared to previous years, with 31 incidents in 2016, 16 in 2015, 9 in 2014, and 8 in 2013. This upward trajectory underscores the growing significance of lithium-ion battery fires as an aviation safety issue.

Grasping the Hazards of Lithium-Ion Battery Fires

Lithium-ion battery fires are highly perilous due to their elevated temperatures and the potential for rekindling even after the initial flames are extinguished. These fires stem from internal chemical reactions within the battery, unleashing intense heat. When such fires transpire in a cargo hold, the situation amplifies in risk.

Cargo holds come equipped with fire suppression systems utilizing Halon, a gas that suffocates flames by depleting oxygen. Nevertheless, Halon proves ineffectual at tempering the temperatures generated by lithium-ion battery fires. This implies that these fires can continue to flare up and potentially spread to nearby devices.

Regulatory Initiatives and Historical Milestones

In response to the fatal crash of UPS Airlines Flight 6 in 2010, triggered by an onboard lithium-ion battery fire, the FAA enacted regulations to govern the transportation of these batteries as commercial cargo. These measures were devised to forestall similar accidents in the future.

The issue garnered heightened attention in 2016 when the Samsung Galaxy Note7 smartphone was subjected to a recall due to fire hazard concerns related to its lithium-ion battery. Consequently, the FAA imposed a ban on these phones being carried on commercial aircraft. Hoverboards faced similar restrictions on passenger luggage by Delta, American, and United in 2015, also due to safety concerns.

Passengers’ Role in Mitigating Lithium-Ion Battery Fires

Travelers play an instrumental role in averting lithium-ion battery fires during flights. It is imperative to adhere to FAA guidelines regarding the transport of spare batteries. Spare lithium-ion batteries ought to be stowed within carry-on bags, rather than left loose in checked luggage. Additionally, the electrical terminals of these batteries should be taped or shielded to prevent contact with any metallic objects that could trigger a short circuit.

Though not mandated by the FAA, it is advisable to house all devices containing lithium-ion batteries in carry-on luggage to diminish potential risks.

Responding to an In-Flight Battery Fire

In the event of a battery-powered device overheating or emitting smoke mid-flight, passengers should promptly alert the flight crew. When possible, move calmly away from the affected device and allow the trained crew to manage the situation.

According to the FAA, the most effective method to cool a runaway battery is to use water or non-alcoholic liquids to extinguish the fire and cool the device. This approach was exemplified during a real-life incident when a JetBlue flight in 2017 diverted for an emergency landing after an e-cigarette charger caught fire. The crew successfully extinguished the fire using water, with no reported injuries.

Through awareness and prudent measures, passengers can help reduce the risks associated with lithium-ion battery fires in flight.

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