News Article - December 04, 2007

  WASHINGTON (Map, News) - The National Transportation Safety Board could not determine whether laptop batteries caused a spectacular cargo plane fire at Philadelphia International Airport last year, but the board determined Tuesday that they also could be not ruled out. Based on the fire and other evidence, the board concluded that lithium batteries - used in laptops and cell phones - are a potential fire hazard.

   "This has been kind of a wake-up call," said Mark Rosenker, chairman of the NTSB. He noted that more consumer education may be needed about the proper handling of lithium batteries. The three crew members on the UPS cargo plane jumped to safety on the tarmac and were treated for minor injuries after it made an emergency landing around midnight on Feb. 7, 2006. The airplane and most of the cargo were destroyed by the fire, which started as the plane approached Philadelphia.

   The blaze was one of several in recent years in which lithium batteries caught fire on aircraft. Rechargeable lithium-ion batteries, sometimes referred to as "secondary" lithium batteries, and nonrechargeable, or "primary," lithium batteries, can present fire hazards because of the heat they can generate when they are damaged or suffer a short circuit. Twelve fires involving batteries were reported to the FAA before the Philadelphia fire, and 15 others have been reported since, Crystal Thomas, an NTBS investigator, told the board. But the NTSB said too many incidents are exempt from reporting requirements and better data is needed.

   The board said cargo operators should transport the batteries in well-marked fire resistant containers that are accessible to the flight crew in case of an onboard fire. The NTSB's recommendations are not binding, and it does not have the authority to force other government agencies to follow its decisions. In the past two years, defective laptop batteries have been fingered as potential fire hazards. Thomas noted that the Consumer Product Safety Commission has recalled millions of laptop batteries because they could catch fire.

   In the Philadelphia case, investigators said destruction from the blaze made it difficult to determine a definitive cause, but that other hazardous materials were ruled out. The NTSB also noted that the blaze appeared to have started in containers that contained laptop batteries. The crew declared an emergency on approach into Philadelphia. Fire and rescue crews met the four-engine jet, a DC-8 that originated in Atlanta, and spent four hours trying to control the blaze.

   The NTSB determined that the airport's rescue and firefighting personnel were not familiar with the aircraft door, and that hurt their ability to access the fire. The board also said some of the emergency personnel who responded were not adequately trained on the use of a key piece of firefighting equipment.

Source - AP