According to new research, a single portable electronic device contained in a check-in baggage can overheat and catch fire which cannot be controlled by the aircraft fire extinguishing system. The report published in the FAA handbook on Lithium Batteries states that the suppression systems can’t extinguish a battery fire that combines with other highly flammable material, such as the gas in an aerosol can or cosmetics commonly carried by travelers.
The FAA tests found that the anti-fire halon gas installed in airline cargo areas wouldn’t extinguish a lithium battery fire, but it prevents the blaze from spreading to adjacent material such as cardboard or clothing. However, aerosol cans exploded in tests even after being bathed in the halon gas, the FAA found.
Lithium ion batteries contained in laptops, phones, battery packs etc. are banned from carriage in the checkin baggage. Interestingly these very batteries can unknowingly enter the cargo hold of the aircraft without any screening when oversized handbags are collected from the passengers at the boarding point. According to an airline source, the airline representative queries the passenger if they are carrying any valuables and dangerous goods. If the answer is ‘yes’ then the same is asked to be removed from the bag and carried on the person before placing the bag in the cargo compartment.
The big difference is that there are stringent procedures to detect and remove batteries from the checkin baggage using high tech equipment and scanners after the passenger check-in point but the bags removed from the gate, just before boarding the aircraft are screened by verbal questioning only. The probability of the battery slipping through with the gate collected hand bag, placed in the cargo compartment is extremely high. The bigger risk is that the airlines are not considering this as a risk and each day exposing the aircraft, crew and passengers to the risk of aircraft fires.
Enforcing the cabin baggage weight and size limitation by the airline at the passenger check-in point will eliminate the risk of the li-ion batteries slipping through the high technology screening process due to human lapse and oversight.