Battery pack suspected cause of recent Virgin Atlantic aircraft fire

Police said a recent fire on board a Virgin Atlantic aircraft during a flight from JFK Airport to London, U.K. appears to have been caused by an external battery pack, a device commonly used to charge smartphones.

Flight 138, with 217 passengers on board, was forced to make an emergency landing in Boston, Massachusetts on Thursday evening, July 4, local time after smoke started to fill the cabin. No one was hurt in the incident, though one passenger reportedly declined help for a smoke-related complaint.

“Preliminary investigation suggests it is a battery pack consistent in appearance with an external phone charger,” Massachusetts State Police said in a release.

It added that a short time into the flight, “smoke and flames” were spotted between the cushions of a passenger seat on the Airbus A330 jet plane, prompting crew members to hastily extinguish the fire. A full investigation is now underway.

If it was indeed a lithium-ion battery pack, there are a number of reasons that could have caused it to catch fire. It may, for example, have been poorly made, or suffered damage prior to the flight — or even during the flight. The fact that it was found between seat cushions certainly points to the possibility of the latter.

Federal Aviation Administration rules stipulate that uninstalled lithium-ion and lithium metal batteries can only be taken on board a passenger plane as carry-on baggage. The Virgin Atlantic fire, as well as a string of other similar incidents, highlight exactly why this is the case.

In early 2018, crew on board a China Southern Airlines aircraft were forced to act quickly when an external battery caught fire in an overhead bin as passengers were boarding the plane, while a battery inside a vape pen is believed to have been the cause of a fire on a SkyWest Airlines plane earlier this year. There were no reports of injuries in either incident.

Responding to the Virgin Atlantic fire, a spokesperson for the airline said: “The safety and security of our customers and crew is always our top priority and we are currently investigating to fully understand the circumstances,” adding, “We’d like to thank our customers for their patience as we work with them to provide local accommodation or to re-book alternative flights to their final destination.”

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