24Hr emergency line +44 (0)20 8476 4099
Join Balpa

The wrong sort of bang this Christmas

by Steve Landells BALPA Flight Safety Specialist

It’s the long-anticipated Christmas getaway. For those who are travelling by air, and who don’t have Santa’s magic sack at their disposal, that means working out how to lug all those gifts to their location safely and in one piece.

Most people will think carefully about how they pack their precious gifts, making sure they are wrapped carefully and that fragile items are well padded. But there is a hidden danger that many passengers are unaware of. That danger comes in the form of lithium batteries… the sort of thing that powers many modern devices but that have been known to catch fire or explode. If you are packing gifts of laptops, phones, cameras or toys there is a safe bet that they include these types of batteries.

The problem is that when these batteries fail, perhaps because of a short circuit or damage to the battery, they could ignite.

Lithium battery fires, unless caught early, can spread quickly and therefore official ICAO (International Civil Aviation Organization) advice is that devices should be kept in the cabin so that any potential fires can be spotted and extinguished before they enter a state known as ‘thermal runaway’ – at which point they are almost impossible to extinguish.

A lithium battery fire in the hold may get out of control very quickly and may not be immediately apparent to the crew. Even when the crew do become aware that something has gone wrong they have no access to the hold area in order to deal with it; in fact, lithium batteries have been cited in the accident reports of at least two fatal accidents.

Back in November I met Dr Paul Shearing who is carrying out research into Lithium Ion batteries at University College London and who has acted as an expert for the AAIB in a number of aircraft incidents.  He told me that a damaged battery of this type, stored in a suitcase could pose a significant threat to flight safety. You can see a film about my meeting with Paul Shearing below.

That’s why pilots are urging passengers to think carefully when they are packing this Christmas. If you need to carry these batteries, make sure you carry them in your hand luggage. Then if there is a problem it will be identified swiftly and trained airline staff could quickly put it out.

Our top tips for travelling safely with lithium batteries this Christmas:

1.    Make sure you identify any items that contain a lithium battery
2.    Carry these items in your hand luggage and not in your suitcase
3.    Make sure any spare batteries for items like cameras and laptops are packaged safely and these must be carried in your hand luggage*
4.    If you do spot any problems with a battery, for example it gets excessively hot/starts to smoke, tell the airline staff immediately.

Wherever you are travelling this yule time BALPA would like to wish you a merry and safe Christmas.

For more information about items that can and cannot be carried in your luggage check this guidance from the CAA: https://www.caa.co.uk/Passengers/Before-you-fly/Baggage/Items-that-are-allowed-in-baggage/

*according to the ICAO Technical Instructions for the Safe Transport of Dangerous Goods by Air