Passengers face new questions to head off battery risk

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Passengers checking in for flights are to be asked if they are carrying lithium batteries as concerns mount over the safety of the devices.

Two recent crashes involving Boeing 747 freighters - September 2010's UPS Flight 006 in Dubai and July 2011's Asiana incident off the coast of South Korea - followed an outbreak of fire in the cargo hold. While lithium batteries have not been confirmed as the cause, they formed part of the cargo on both aircraft.

Lithium batteries are increasingly used in electronic equipment such as laptop computers, mobile phones and video equipment and are known to be prone to overheating if they short circuit. The FAA has noted that if the batteries enter a condition known as thermal runaway they can reach temperatures of 600 Celsius.

According to the FAA, there were 113 incidents of "smoke, fire, extreme heat or explosion" involving battery-powered equipment or batteries between 1991 and 2010, although not all were the lithium type.

Australia's Civil Aviation Safety Authority (CASA) has now said that as lithium batteries "have the potential to overheat and burn under certain conditions, the preference is to have them carried in the cabin by passengers where the risk can be better managed". A fire starting in a passenger's carry-on luggage will be detected and easier to extinguish by crew, rather than one that starts in the unattended cargo hold.

For this reason, said CASA, passengers checking in would be asked additional questions on whether they were carrying lithium batteries as airlines sought to ensure that lithium batteries were carried in the safest possible manner.

"The additional dangerous goods questions will be asked at check-in, whether it is via the internet, at the airport terminal with a self-service check-in or at a check-in desk staffed by an airline representative," said CASA.

An article in the organisation's Flight Safety Australia magazine earlier this year said that, while provision was still made for lithium batteries to be carried in checked-in baggage, spare batteries must have their terminals protected from short circuit and be carried in the cabin.

The safe carriage of lithium batteries is being looked at by international aviation safety regulators, with work being undertaken by ICAO.