Lithium batteries ignited a fire inside the cargo hold of a Boeing B737-800 at Melbourne airport; moments before passengers boarded the Fiji-bound flight.
Ground handlers noticed smoke coming from a case located in the rear cargo hold of the plane and the flight crew activated the aircraft’s fire suppression system before notifying fire authorities.
The fire was contained to the one case, which upon inspection was found to have contained more than eight lithium batteries. It is believed the fire ignited when one of the batteries short-circuited as the case was being loaded onto the aircraft.
The flight was cancelled and inspections revealed only minor smoke damage had occurred to surrounding bags. There was no damage to the aircraft.
More disturbing, however, was that the passenger responsible for the case had twelve more batteries undeclared in other luggage.
An investigation is underway.
The incident serves as a stark reminder of the potential danger lithium batteries pose to aviation, particularly when they are incorrectly prepared, packed and stored in checked-in baggage.
In July 2013, Flight Safety Australia looked at the prevalence of lithium batteries being taken onto aircraft, highlighting that there is one main rule to remember: although you can pack lithium battery-equipped devices in your checked luggage, you are not allowed to pack spare lithium batteries in checked luggage.
In other words, if you have spare lithium batteries, you must carry them in carry-on luggage, or on your person. The rationale here is that if these batteries begin smoking or generating heat, then trained cabin crew can deal them with immediately.
To ensure lithium batteries cannot short-circuit when they are packed in your carry-on luggage you can follow these three simple steps:
- Keep the batteries in their original packaging
- Cover the battery terminals with electrical insulating tape
- Store each battery in a plastic bag or pouch
The circumstances of this particular incident also show the value of effective and efficient decision-making and utilising crew resource management. In this case, the ground crew were an integral part of the resource management that prevented further damage to the aircraft.
The Civil Aviation Safety Authority’s website has more information about safely transporting lithium batteries and continues to remain proactive in looking at the safety risks presented by batteries, particularly when they are hidden or mis-declared.
For operators – it’s not the dangerous goods you know about that will cause you a problem – it’s the ones you don’t know about.
Remember, if you’re in doubt about anything in your luggage – ASK!