Malaysian officials have confirmed that a consignment of lithium-ion batteries was in the cargo hold of Flight MH370. “These are not regarded as dangerous goods,” said the CEO of Malaysian Airlines, Ahmad Jauhari Yahya, “and were packed as recommended by the International Civil Aviation Organisation.”
Little attention has been given to what was in the cargo hold of the Boeing 777, yet this would automatically be of interest to accident investigators. In this case the continued emphasis by the Malaysians on actions by the pilots and suspicions of a hijacking seem to have skewed the priorities.
The International Air Transport Association, IATA has pointed out that millions of lithium-ion batteries are safely carried by air every year. (The International Civil Aviation Organisation, ICAO, sets recommended safety standards while IATA represents airlines)
In the U.S., however, the Federal Aviation Administration’s Office of Security and Hazardous Materials Safety keeps a list of incidents involving these batteries. They include:
- The hands of a passenger on a Southwest Airlines flight burned when spare lithium-ion batteries for a cell phone melted the zip-top bag in which they were carried, breached the passenger’s carry-on bag and produced smoke and flames.
- A package of 18 lithium-ion batteries melted through their plastic wrap and set fire to their outer package at the UPS flight center in Louisville, Kentucky.
- A FedEx pilot was taking the jump seat in the cockpit of a flight from Memphis when a lithium-ion battery in a flashlight carried in his backpack caught fire while the airplane was still at the gate.
The FAA cautions that their published list of scores of incidents does not represent all the information collected nor “all investigative or enforcement actions taken.”
As became apparent during a National Transportation Safety Board hearing last year into fires in the larger lithium-ion batteries used to power the systems of the Boeing 787 Dreamliner, even the manufacturers concede that the technology has not matured enough for them fully to understand how spontaneous meltdowns occur, either in a single cell or when one cell meltdown breaches its casing and spreads to another cell.
We don’t know what else was in the cargo bays of Flight MH370 but during any investigation by the NTSB everything on the cargo manifest would be carefully scrutinized and, given their record and the NTSB’s recent technical investigation of them, lithium-ion batteries would receive particular scrutiny. At the very least, until proved otherwise, cargo should be given equal weight with other scenarios as the possible cause of an accident.