The Very Real Threat of Fire in the Sky

Commercial airplaneFire is one of the most dangerous threats to an airplane. With thousands of gallons of fuel, passenger luggage, and cabin fittings, airplanes are a tinderbox just waiting for a spark. While fuel has always been a leading cause of aircraft fires, lithium ion batteries are a growing cause for concern.

Fire on Florida Runway

On October 29th, 2015, a Dynamic International Airlines plane caught fire at Ft. Lauderdale Hollywood International Airport. Witnesses reported the nearly 30 year-old aircraft was leaking fuel prior to the fire. The fire caught quickly and crew evacuated passengers as best they could. Even so, twenty-one passengers and crew suffered injuries and were taken to the hospital for treatment.

While the NTSB and airline workers’ compensation attorneys continue investigating the cause of the accident, the NTSB stated that the investigation has shown that the main fuel line supply had become disconnected within the wing. The incident highlights the fire danger aging aircraft pose. The older the aircraft, the more likely systems are to fail and put aircrew in danger.

Dangerous Batteries a Leading Cause of Fires

Lithium ion batteries are popular for the long-lasting power they can provide. Lightweight and inexpensive, they’ve made it possible to develop ever more sophisticated electronics. However, the price is high. Already, lithium ion batteries have caused numerous aircraft fires. Many have occurred in flight where the danger of catastrophic injury and death increases exponentially.

Banning Dangerous Cargo

While transport of cargo such as ammunition, fuel, and other flammable materials is already highly restricted, airlines took a proactive step towards fire safety during the 2015 holiday season. Citing concerns over the batteries contained within the highly popular “Hoverboard” toys, US airlines banned them from commercial flights. The ban came after the US Consumer Product Safety Administration received 10 reports of the devices spontaneously combusting.

The airlines had reason for concern. A September 2010 fire on a UPS flight from Dubai to Cologne was caused by lithium ion batteries. The plane crashed killing the pilot and co-pilot. The investigation determined that while the fire had not breached the airframe at the time of the crash, the smoke from the fire had. This overwhelmed the pilots and caused them to lose control of the aircraft. The fire highlighted the dangers of in-flight fires. Indeed, the vast majority of in-flight fires lead to total loss of aircraft, crew, and passengers.

Dreamliners Spark Nightmares

Technological advances are making aircraft lighter and more efficient. However, some of the technology being installed on modern aircraft can be downright dangerous. That was the case with Boeing’s much anticipated Dreamliner 787. In January 2013, All Nippon Airways and Japan Airlines experienced several fires on their 787’s.

These fires prompted the airlines to voluntarily ground their fleets until the cause of the fires could be determined. Concern spread, and all airlines operating these aircraft grounded them within a week of the first fire. That same month, the FAA announced a comprehensive review of the Dreamliner’s critical operating systems. At the same time, they reviewed the 2007 safety approval and FAA certification Boeing had been granted for the aircraft.

After an extensive investigation, it was determined the aircraft’s lithium-ion batteries were prone to short-circuiting and thermal runaway. These occurred due to faults in the batteries themselves, and faults in the safety systems. It was not until April 2013 that Boeing completed a redesign of the battery systems to resolve the faults. In the interim, aircrew openly refused to fly on the 787 until the problem was resolved.

Looking to the Future

While aircrew training can help reduce the risk of fire and injury while the aircraft is on the ground, there is little aircrew can do once the aircraft is in the air. Tests on lithium ion batteries showed that the fire extinguishers the aircraft were equipped with were able to reduce, but not eliminate the fires. Moreover, should a fire occur in an area that is difficult or impossible for aircrew to access, there would be no possibility of putting out such fires.

When fires occur on the ground, burns and smoke inhalation are the most common injuries. When they occur in the air, the results are catastrophic. With limited resources and limited access to many areas of the aircraft, there is little crews can do to extinguish fires. For this reason it is incumbent on airlines to enhance the safety of their aircraft and to ensure that passengers aren’t transporting cargo that can present a fire hazard. Doing so is the only way to minimize the risk of fire to both passengers and aircrew.