In-flight fires prompt urgent new battery safety warning

Two in-flight fires involving batteries in the last six weeks have prompted US transport officials to issue an urgent safety warning for those taking laptops and mobile phones on aircraft.

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Two in-flight fires involving batteries in the last six weeks have prompted US transport officials to issue an urgent safety warning for those taking laptops and mobile phones on aircraft.

Battery manufacturers have been racing to develop safer products after last year’s high profile recall of millions of laptop batteries after a series of fires.

The US government’s Department of Transportation Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) warning recommends that travellers cover loose batteries with insulating tape to prevent contact with metal objects; place each battery in its own case or plastic bag; and pack spare batteries in carry-on bags rather than checked baggage.

"We're determined to keep America's airlines the safest in the world,"
Stacey Gerard, the PHMSA chief safety officer, said in a statement.
"Passengers can help us do that by following simple precautions in packing and handling their batteries and battery-powered equipment."

On one of its Web sites, the government agency also asked passengers to pack battery-powered devices in carry-on bags -- not those checked to the cargo hold, because fires are easier to fight in the cabin.

A pair of recent on-board fires prompted the alert. On Feb. 10, a fire broke out in the overhead bin on a JetBlue Airways flight after it had left New York's JFK airport. One or more batteries were later blamed. The aircraft was able to divert to a nearby airport without incident and the fire was put out by flight attendants.

On Sunday 18 March, a battery overheated or ignited on board an American Airlines aircraft flying from Argentina. Cabin crew also extinguished that fire, said the PHMSA.

The Air Line Pilots Association (ALPA), a union representing 60,000 US and Canadian commercial pilots, followed the PHMSA warning with a statement of its own yesterday. "ALPA is not seeking to prohibit passengers from carrying portable electronic devices or batteries aboard aircraft, but we do want passengers to know the risk and pilots to know how to react to it," said Mark Rogers, the union's dangerous goods program director.

"A battery fire can be extremely difficult to extinguish and it may re-ignite a number of times before being controlled," Rogers added. "We're concerned that battery fires may not be routinely covered in fire fighting training for crew members, and they need to know that traditional fire fighting equipment may not be effective."

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