Inquiry seeks clarity on tackling lithium fires in cabin

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French investigators are seeking an assessment of risks associated with lithium batteries in portable devices, as well as better guidelines on dealing with an in-flight lithium fire.

The recommendation follows an incident on board an Air France Boeing 777-200 in cruise over the Atlantic on 8 December 2010.

French investigation authority BEA states that the crew of the Paris-bound aircraft (F-GSPK), alerted by an electrical burning smell, cut the power to the in-flight entertainment system and traced the origin to seat 4F in the business-class cabin.

Upon removing the seat cushion, the cabin crew discovered flames and instinctively attempted to quench them with water – although this can exacerbate a lithium fire.

BEA says an examination of the seat revealed a 5V lithium battery from a passenger device had been crushed in the seat mechanism, possibly after slipping beneath the cushion. The resulting short-circuit had initiated the fire.

None of the occupants of the 777 was injured. Air France subsequently drew attention to the importance of not using water on an electrical fire, but instead directed crews to use halon extinguishers. BEA points out that halon is potentially harmful.

While studies have repeatedly highlighted the hazards posed by lithium batteries in cargo, BEA says the risk within the cabin is being “ignored” and there is “no consensus” on the best method to tackle a fire.

It has recommended that the European Aviation Safety Agency addresses the matter by looking into the risk of fire from batteries in personal devices and providing procedures for dealing with such incidents.