Batteries on a plane: CAA warns of 'growing fire risk'

Feb 4, 2014

Lithium battery in air purifier caught fire at 28,000ft while mobile phone burned flight attendant's hand

THE huge growth in passengers carrying lithium batteries on planes poses a growing fire risk, according to the Civil Aviation Authority.

An average small plane is likely to have hundreds of lithium batteries on board when you count all the watches, laptops, cameras and tablet computers carried by passengers or posted by airmail and they all potentially pose a danger.

"Lithium batteries look harmless enough, but they pack a hell of a punch if they overheat," says Richard Westcott, BBC transport correspondent.

Several cases in the US appear to prove his point. In June last year, police at San Diego International Airport discovered a "smoking" passenger bag on a luggage carousel. Inside, a lithium-ion battery had touched a screwdriver and both had melted.

In April 2012 a lithium battery inside a passenger's personal air purifier caught fire at 28,000ft and, in September 2012, a flight attendant and two passengers were burned when they handled a mobile phone and spare battery that had overheated.

Westcott stresses that such incidents are a "very rare" in the context of the billions of flights made every year. "But one fire is one too many," he says.

Geoff Leach, the manager of the CAA's Dangerous Goods Office, tells the BBC that he is worried about cheap, copycat batteries bought from dubious sources online. Batteries bought from respectable retailers are regulated and safe, he says, as long as you pack them in your bag properly.

Nobody is suggesting that lithium batteries should be banned from aircraft, adds Westcott, but passengers can follow advice to avoid a fire.

Batteries should be carried in a place where you can reach them easily, in your hand luggage rather than in the hold. The metal terminal of spare batteries should be covered in tape or wrapped in a plastic bag, and kept away from metallic objects, he explains.

Lastly, Westcott says: "Be careful where you buy them in the first place - if they're a lot cheaper, there may well be a reason."

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