JetBlue Flight 915 from New York to San Francisco made an emergency landing this morning in Grand Rapids, Michigan after a laptop battery caught fire in the overhead bin of the passenger cabin. News reports suggest none of the 158 passengers was injured. That may not be entirely correct. The fact is we don’t know what what might be the consequences on their future health. What is known is that what comes out of a burning lithium ion battery is not good.
According to a study by nine European scientists and published on MDPI, an online peer-reviewed platform, one substance known to be present in the smoke, acrolein, is carcinogenic. A second, hydrogen fluoride, is corrosive to the skin and respiratory tract. Benzene, styrene, and seven others in the alphabet soup science enjoys as much as aviation have also been detected in the fumes. Reading through their hazardous properties is not for the faint of heart.
Given that, the warning that the area around a burning battery should be evacuated makes good sense.
Well that’s not possible on an airliner flying at 38 thousand feet, so the crew of Flight 915 should be commended for getting the plane down as quickly as possible after passengers saw the smoke billowing out of the overhead bin.
Pilots don’t like fires, as explained clearly by airline captain Jim Blaszczak, in my book, The Crash Detectives.
“If there is any indication of smoke or fire, the definition of eternity is from now until we get this airplane on the ground,” he told me.
Until he retired last year, Blaszczak flew the Boeing 787 Dreamliner, on which are carried two super-duper lithium ion batteries. The wisdom of this design has been questioned by many. But the JetBlue fire raises an entirely different issue for the flying public; just where can the devices we cherish be safely carried?
Even as Flight 915 passengers were preparing for their trans-continental flight, safety and security officials in Europe were debating expanding the American order to place laptops and other large electronic devices into the baggage hold on flights from Europe.
Safety specialists don’t like the idea. A battery fire should not be allowed to smolder undetected in an inaccessible compartment of an airliner transiting the Atlantic. That’s why you’ll see folks voting for the slightly better alternative; bring lithium ion batteries into the cabin where a fire can be detected before it gets out of control.
This appears to be safer when the health effects of breathing toxic, caustic, carcinogenic smoke and fumes is left out of the equation.
Lithium ion batteries, we love ’em, we rely on ’em, but we cannot get away from the thorny issues that when it comes to carrying them on airplanes, they may kill us one way or another.
I am a journalist, a published author, speaker and broadcaster specializing in aviation and travel.