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An explosive issue

by Steve Landells Flight Safety Specialist

“Remember, remember the fifth of November, Gunpowder treason and plot.”

It was a plan to create a huge explosion that would bring down the houses of parliament. Guy Fawkes and his fellow plotters chose to pack the cellars of the houses of parliament with several dozen barrels of gunpowder. If he was up to no good today there are numerous other options that Fawkes could employ to create a fire that would bring the building down. And if he was caught storing several pallets of seemingly innocuous lithium batteries in the houses of parliament perhaps no one would even figure out that a treasonous plot was under foot.

And there is the big problem with lithium batteries and it’s a serious issue for aviation. You might not think your laptop or mobile phone is particularly dangerous, but devices such as these contain lithium batteries that, when faulty, can cause devastating fires.

In fact Lithium batteries fires have been blamed either directly, or indirectly, for a number of crashes including the UPS747 freighter in 2010 and the Asiana 747 in 2011. It’s a serious issue and one that BALPA wants addressed as a matter of urgency.

There are currently restrictions on which batteries are allowed to be carried as cargo on passenger aircraft and BALPA would like to see this extended to all aircraft until further research has been carried out to establish a safe number of lithium batteries that can be transported at any one time, and adequate methods of identifying and controlling lithium battery fires have been introduced.

Currently it is allowable to carry lithium batteries in hold baggage as long as they are in a device, such as a laptop (loose batteries or power banks are prohibited in the hold). Recent trials by the FAA have demonstrated that a lithium battery which enters thermal runaway (by short circuiting or damage) can easily set fire to other allowable suitcase contents and cause fires and even explosions that even the best fire suppressant systems fail to contain.

Because of this BALPA is asking for a ban on the carriage of all personal electronic devices in hold baggage to be investigated and also propose that an education program for the public is introduced, highlighting how dangerous any type of lithium battery can potentially be, and the need for all batteries to be carried in the cabin where problems can be detected and dealt with most swiftly.

We are also calling for the introduction of a system whereby passenger hand baggage can be identified as containing lithium batteries, whether that means marking boarding cards, or attaching ‘cabin baggage only’ labels.

As part of our work to understand the threat of lithium batteries further we have arranged to meet up with a leading scientist in the area. Later this month I will be visiting University College London where research using sophisticated 3D imaging is being carried out in to what happens when lithium batteries overheat and explode. This research will help us understand how Li-ion batteries fail and is important for identifying how to improve their design to make them safer to use and transport.

We will of course keep you updated on this explosive issue.