Product Liability

Lithium-Ion Battery Erupts Inside China Southern Airplane

A lithium-ion battery fire that broke out inside the overhead bin of a China Southern Airlines plane demonstrates the threat that faulty or damaged batteries pose to aviation safety.

Fortunately, China Southern Airlines flight CZ3539 was still on the ground at Guangzhou Baiyun International Airport in Guangzhou, China, when passengers boarding the plane noticed the overhead bin was billowing with smoke at first, then flames.

Someone onboard the plane recorded a video of the Feb. 25 incident, which shows an airline attendant attempting to douse the flames with water. A passenger assists and uses a bottle of juice to smother the flames as the cabin fills up with smoke.

According to various reports, the flames were emitted from a portable lithium-ion power bank, but it hasn’t been revealed what type of device was involved. Some reports say that the lithium-ion battery was inside a camera bag.

The battery fire was fully extinguished, but passengers were evacuated from the aircraft and put on another plane that departed later in the day. Chinese authorities questioned the owner of the rechargeable lithium-ion power bank and determined that the device had not been powered on or in use when the fire broke out.

The fire in Guangzhou is the latest a series of lithium-ion battery fires that aviation professionals say are happening with alarming frequency. While fires in an overhead compartment or elsewhere in the cabin are bad enough, they can be contained. The real worry is that passengers will stow lithium-ion batteries in checked bags, which go into the cargo hold. A fire in the cargo hold would be inaccessible during flight.

After the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission warned the public that the lithium-ion batteries in Samsung’s Galaxy Note 7 smartphones could overheat, explode, and catch fire, the U.S. government banned the phones from all U.S. commercial aircraft. A similar ban was put in place for recreational hoverboards, which dominated product safety headlines in 2015 due to the propensity for the devices to burst into flames.

Since 1991, there have been nearly 200 reports of fires on aircraft. According to Consumer Reports, between January and June of 2017, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) reported at least 18 incidents involving lithium-ion batteries on airplanes and in airports. There were 31 such incidents in all of 2016. In 2015 there were just 16 lithium-ion battery emergencies and eight in 2013.