Delta Connection/SkyWest flight 4449 scheduled to fly from Salt Lake City to Bozeman, Montana narrowly averted disaster when a lithium-ion battery exploded and caught fire in a passenger suitcase loaded in the cargo hold of the aircraft. Fortunately, the quick-thinking crew members smelled smoke just before the aircraft took off -- halting the flight and triggering a search of the cargo bay, which quickly revealed an exploded lithium-ion battery in a toiletry bag.
While the FAA does not prohibit lithium-ion batteries, most major airlines have prohibited them in checked baggage. This includes so-called smart luggage, which rely on lithium-ion batteries to work. According to FAA records, there were 46 incidents with lithium-ion batteries on aircraft in 2017 -- up from 31 in 2016.
Kudos to @Delta ground crew in Salt Lake for saving the day (and us). They smelled fire in cargo - unloaded bags and discovered this. If we had taken off ... #Thankful As the pilot said, we owe them pic.twitter.com/HMnoEg1AcU-- Kaira Rouda (@KairaRouda) March 12, 2018
Said a Delta spokesperson,
"We are proud of the quick work of our ground crew who recognized and helped extinguish a bag containing a lithium-ion battery that began overheating inside the cargo hold during the loading process of SkyWest flight 4449 operating as Delta Connection from Salt Lake City to Bozeman, Mont. The situation underscores the importance of removing lithium-ion batteries from checked or gate-checked luggage."
The FAA recommends that any devices containing lithium-ion batteries be kept in carry-on bags -- not checked in gate-checked luggage.
Unfortunately, as the upward trend in incidents shows, we can expect more such battery explosions and fires in the future. As a 2016 FAA safety alert pointed out, "FAA battery fire testing has highlighted the potential risk of a catastrophic aircraft loss due to damage resulting from a lithium battery fire or explosion."
As veteran pilot and airline safety consultant John Cox points out about lithium-ion battery incidents, "It's one of the few rising risks in aviation."