A lithium-ion battery fire that forced a China Southern Airlines plane to make an emergency landing in Malaysia Dec. 23 underscores the risks that the powerful, rechargeable batteries pose to commercial aviation.
The aviation news website Simple Flying reported that China Southern Airlines Flight CZ396 had just taken off from Penang, Malaysia bound for its hub In Guangzhou, China, when a passenger’s battery pack exploded in an overhead compartment.
The plane, an Airbus A321, radioed for help and turned back to Penang as cabin crew fought to extinguish the fire. Simple Flying reports that the crew managed to get the blaze under control by the time the plane landed in Penang. The looping flight path of the plane published by Simple Flying indicates that it took fuel-burning measures before landing in Penang.
Pictures taken aboard the China Southern flight show a charred battery pack and USB cable with three burned lithium-ion batteries outside the battery pack casing.
Almost all travelers fly with electronics that require lithium-ion batteries, such as cell phones, laptop computers, tablets, and digital cameras. Many travelers also carry auxiliary power sources such as battery packs, which can recharge electronics in the absence of an electrical outlet. Some travelers also carry e-cigarettes, which have become infamous for the propensity of their lithium-ion batteries to overheat or explode.
With all these lithium-ion battery-powered devices on planes, incidents of explosions and fires in flight and in airports have become more and more frequent. While obviously dangerous to air travelers and crew, the fires caused by faulty lithium-ion batteries are also disruptive and costly.
According to Simple Flying, the China Southern plane landed safely and it doesn’t appear that anyone was injured. The airplane was inspected and the luggage was rescreened. The same passengers and crew then re-boarded the plane and flew to Guangzhou a few hours later.
Fortunately the lithium-battery fire occurred in the cabin of the plane, where crew could access and extinguish it. Had the passenger packed the batteries in checked bags, the fire could have been catastrophic. Almost all airlines and international aviation agencies have strict policies against packing lithium-ion batteries in checked bags. Some countries and airlines even ban stand-alone battery packs from airplanes entirely.