By Ted Jeory
March 22, 2014
AIRLINES were placed on red alert over potentially catastrophic fire risks from lithium mobile phone batteries just 11 days before Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370 took off carrying a cargo of them, the Sunday Express can reveal.
The warning was issued by French authorities last month after a fire on board an Air France Boeing 777 in 2010 was found to be caused by a phone’s lithium battery.
They had discovered that the battery had slipped into the moving mechanism of a business class seat, crushing it and sparking a fire.
As a result of that incident and a series of other fires over the past few years, they told the European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) to investigate the risks of people taking mobile devices into aircraft cabins.
Their main concern centred on an Air France flight from Atlanta to Paris, which experienced a fire over the Atlantic near Ireland in December 2010 at 38,000ft.
Cabin crew had noticed a burning smell and switched off the in-flight entertainment system to minimise the hazard, but when they removed the seat cushion they saw naked flames.
They then doused the flames with water, which extinguished the fire and the plane later landed safely.
However, in its report published last month, the Bureau d’Enquetes et d’Analyses (BEA) said that while there had been studies into carrying lithium batteries in cargo holds, none had ever been carried out on the risks of letting passengers using them in the cabin.
Neither is there any uniform and internationally accepted solution on how to extinguish such fires, it said.
It said using water on the Air France flight could have made the problem worse, adding it “implied the emission of a potentially noxious gas that is bad for health. Its use in the cockpit could clearly be dangerous.”
The report ordered the EASA to “propose appropriate procedures in case of a fire on this type of equipment”.
It has emerged that Flight MH370, which went missing two weeks ago, was carrying a cargo of lithium batteries in its cargo hold.
Malaysian authorities today said there was nothing to suggest this was linked to the disappearance.
However, aviation experts worry that the increasing use of mobile devices such as iPhones and iPads on board planes, together with passengers’ demands to recharge their lithium batteries while flying, will heighten the risks of further fires.
In their report, the French investigators said: “During dismantling of the seat, a spare external battery from a passenger’s electronic device was found severely damaged in the structure of the seat. It showed traces of fire.
“It is possible that it slipped under the seat covering, behind the armrest or down the side of the seat.
“The crushing of the battery in the seat mechanism likely caused a short-circuit, leading to an increase in the internal temperature. The exposure of the lithium electrodes to the air caused a fire, and oxygen contributed to the combustion.
“These batteries can be subject to overheating, in particular lithium-ion. Just extinguishing the flames does not stop the phenomenon, except if the battery is then cooled.
“Extinguishing actions and cooling are necessary to stop the internal reaction. During the incident, throwing water on the fire achieved this.
“Throwing water on a lithium battery fire can, however, revive the flames and make it more difficult to extinguish because of the reduction of lithium in water, which leads to the release of hydrogen, which is highly inflammable.”
It added: “Transporting lithium batteries in the cabin to supply power to personal electronic devices is not subject to any regulations or harmonised preventive measures between airlines. “Some airlines have chosen to ban carrying them in checked-in hold baggage.
“As of the day of the incident, Air France cabin crew had been trained to use CO2) extinguishers on electrical fires, avoiding any means containing water.
“However, the airline’s operations manual did not include any specific instructions relating to lithium battery fires.”
The report said that while the US Federal Aviation Authority has published guidance on how to extinguish lithium battery fires–it advises using halon or water to put the fire out and always to use water to cool the battery–no such recommendations have been sent out from the EASA.
It says lithium batteries are known to be dangerous and they have caused several emergency landings.
A UPS plane crashed in Dubai in September 2010 after a cargo of lithium batteries was set alight.
And last May, another Air France Boeing 777 from Paris to Rio suffered a fire from a passenger’s mobile device battery.
The French report said: “Many studies are currently under way relating to the transport of lithium batteries as cargo.
“The hazards of the latter have been identified. Nevertheless, none of these studies relates to batteries of mobile electronic devices transported in the cabin.”
It concluded: “Many studies are currently under way on the danger relating to transporting the various types of lithium batteries in cargo holds.
“Nevertheless, the danger represented by transporting them in the cabin has not been taken into account.
“Faced with a lithium battery fire, actions to extinguish the flames then to cool the components are required to stop any internal reaction.
“There is no consensus on the procedure to apply, specifically on the use of water during extinction of the flames.
“Consequently, the BEA recommends that EASA evaluate the risks associated with fires to batteries contained in mobile electronic devices transported in cabins by passengers and crew, and propose appropriate procedures in case of a fire on this type of equipment.”
Malaysia Airlines issued a statement today saying it was in compliance with the International Civil Aviation Organization and the International Air Transport Association requirements and classified as “non-dangerous goods.”
Aviation expert David Learmount, of Flight Global, said it was highly unlikely that a fire had been the cause of the Boeing 777’s disappearance.
He said the most likely cause was the deliberate actions of someone on board.
Chinese satellite photographs released today highlighted more debris in the Indian Ocean, but none as yet been found by search and rescue teams.