Aviation has a remarkable safety record, however, there is a growing threat that urgently must be addressed: The number of fires while transporting lithium batteries on aircraft is increasing at an alarming rate. You may be surprised to learn that in 2018, an average of one lithium battery fire occurred onboard an aircraft every week. The Coalition of Airline Pilots Associations and others in the aviation industry are deeply concerned.
The root cause of a lithium battery fire is an internal short circuit that causes thermal runaway. All batteries carry the risk of thermal runaway, which can reduce visibility within the aircraft by generating thick smoke. In addition, smoke and fumes from an in-flight fire are likely to be highly toxic and irritating to the eyes and respiratory system. Smoke and fumes may therefore quickly incapacitate pilots and flight attendants unless they take protective action. Finally, batteries can emit sharp projectiles that can easily cause harm to those in close proximity of a fire.
This problem is not going to go away easily or quickly. We must consider the ubiquitous presence of lithium ion batteries in today’s society. Currently, the battery industry produces about 7 billion batteries per year. Industry experts estimate that 50 million batteries are brought onboard aircraft worldwide every day in personal electronic devices carried by passengers and in bulk shipments of batteries in the cargo hold. Given the increasing threat to our aviation system, CAPA strongly recommends the following changes and advancements in the aviation industry to prevent future aircraft accidents:
- Develop a voluntary third-party validation process for newly manufactured batteries that involves testing a battery to the point of failure. Testing is crucial to understanding the power and unpredictability of lithium batteries overheating and going into full thermal runaway. Following rigorous testing, inspection of the manufacturing facility and the use of specific packaging, labeling and data tracking would provide airlines an idea of whether certain batteries are safe or unsafe to transport utilizing a Safety Management System (SMS). This would also identify and eliminate many counterfeit products from entering the marketplace.
- Develop and certify an active fire detection and suppression system for Unit Load Devices (ULD) for both cargo and passenger aircraft to ensure any on-board fire is detected and suppressed. This system should be able to suppress fires for at least 6 hours at a maximum temperature of 1,500 degrees F.
- Require that certificated FAR part 121 Cargo Air Carriers be equipped to maintain cockpit visibility sufficient to allow the pilots to see basic flight instruments and the outside environment at all times during emergencies when dense, continuous smoke is in the cockpit.
- Research and implement new baggage compartment materials to make them more fire resistant than the current materials in use to protect passengers and aircraft systems including flight controls. This material should be able to contain a 1500-degree F fire for at least 6 hours.
- Continue participation in the SAE G-27 Battery Packaging Standards and promote battery packaging that mitigates fire propagation in an aircraft.
- Identify and share best training practices for flight crewmembers to safely manage lithium battery fires on aircraft. This would include research and development of standards for products used to contain lithium battery fires inflight (e.g. fire containment bags for laptops).