This blog post originally appeared as an article in the April/May 2015 issue of the AircraftIT Ops eJournal.
The risks of battery fires on board aircraft have been in the news again recently. A couple of incidents with battery fires and another airline refusing the freight carriage of lithium battery shipments have rekindled concerns surrounding passenger electronic devices. The acceptable usage of consumer electronic devices in all phases of flight in both the cockpit and the cabin seems to be commonplace now. However, with all these devices making their way into aircraft, is everybody really aware of the risks? I don’t intend to detail the risks around lithium batteries on aircraft, but for guidance on risk mitigation, this 45 page IATA document does it.
I’m a frequent flyer and, on any given flight, I’d bring six, maybe 7, personal electronic devices. That might sound a lot, but I’m not carrying anything out of the ordinary. There’s usually my phone, my laptop, an iPad, sometimes an Android tablet too, a GPS watch, iPod shuffle and a camera… all with lithium batteries and chargers. A lot of friends and colleague would add back up batteries, spare phones and noise cancelling headphones to that list. On their website, Delta list 18 different acceptable devices that can be used in all phases of flight. Even assuming a conservative number of devices per passenger per flight, you can see the scale of the issue.
So, which devices are most at risk? Generally speaking the more powerful the battery, the greater the potential for overheating and, in extreme cases, fires. Damaged and faulty batteries pose a significantly greater threat with several cases of faulty repairs or damage caused to devices in flight that have resulted in a safety incident. In their in-flight safety video, Air France even mentions the risk of crushing a lost phone by reclining your seat. How many of us have got devices with known battery issues? How many of our fellow passengers have a laptop whose battery doesn’t hold a charge, or a phone that’s been dropped? They may be putting up with the cracked screen, but what’s the condition of the battery? I don’t think passengers are aware of the risks.
We’re attached to our electronic devices these days but we need to be cognizant of the issue and try, as passengers and as flight operations professionals, to do our bit to be alert to the dangers and help minimize the risks that batteries might pose.
The whole issue was put into perspective on a recent layover.Waiting for a connecting flight, I’d plugged in to a charging station at my gate. I had my headphones on and was engrossed in a box set on my laptop, also being used a charging hub for all my other gear. A young man tapped me on the shoulder and asked whether he could borrow the power socket for 10 minutes…
“Seriously? You’ve got to be kidding me? I just got here, I’ve got six devices to charge and I’m seriously behind on Game of Thrones…” I sighed in despair.
OK; I didn’t say any of that out loud: I’m British for heaven’s sake. But my body language made clear what I thought of his charging needs. I unplugged my laptop and settled back down. The thankful socket thief then rolled up his trousers to plug his prosthetic leg into the socket. How bad did I feel?
We don’t need to start checking our fellow passenger’s artificial limbs for battery risks, but if we all were just a little bit more mindful about what we really need to take on a flight, that would help ensure we are not putting aircraft in danger… or at least that’s how I see it.