Worldwide, there have been over 105 incidents of fire and/or smoke on board commercial airlines in the year 2018. These incidents have lead to catastrophic accidents in the past. The pilots and cabin crew are trained periodically to safely handle incidents related to fire/smoke on board. The pilots and cabin crew have masks, which protect them from the harmful effects of smoke/fire, but the passengers are not provided any protective equipment to deal with fire/smoke. This leaves the passengers exposed to the risk of asphyxiation or the effects of toxic gases.
Providing protection from fire in airlines is a complicated matter. Cabin interiors are furnished and lined with potentially flammable materials, and passengers are tightly packed in a relatively small, confined enclosure. Inaccessible compartments contain potential ignition sources and combustible materials, and wing tanks carry thousands of litters of highly flammable aviation fuel. Over the years, advances have been made in terms of technology, equipment and regulatory requirements. As per statistics, there were on an average of 32 deaths a year from the effects of fire involving U.S. air carriers between 1965 and 1979 which might seem remarkably low, compared with the figures on other modes of transport. But it is a major concern. An estimated 15% of all deaths in domestic air carrier accidents during that period have been attributed to the effects of fire (Sarkos,C. P,1982,85).
The fire on board and/ or smoke associated with it can be due to a number of reasons. In the past few years, passengers and crew personal devices with batteries, power banks and other material in small quantities have been attributed to the incidents. The sheer number is an area of concern. e.g. a medium sized jet aircraft with 180 passengers on board would easily have approx.200 devices with lithium ion batteries which have the potential to cause accidents due to fire/smoke on board.
Aviation safety is assessed by a multi tier group, which includes specialist from the manufacturer of the aircraft, the airlines, the regulator and other subject matter experts. These people have an array of eventualities to look into and decide the emergency equipment to be carried on board. The priority is given to the event with a higher risk number, which is a product of severity and probability.
Lives are endangered during the emergency evacuation of passengers from the aircraft due to the presence of smoke, which reduces the visibility in the cabin and carbon monoxide poisons the air. In 1983, cabin crew of Air Canada flight 797 flying a DC-9 aircraft passed out wet towels during flight, with smoke in the cabin, however, that was probably not effective—only a small percentage of the passengers who were given wet towels survived.
Given the increasing number of such incidents, it is time that a risk assessment be carried out and due weightage given to on-board fire/smoke. Passengers need to be equipped with individual portable smoke protection devices, which allow them to survive the descent to land and safely evacuate the aircraft.