Another Air France PED incident begs seat question

Air France has been beset with what appears to be a disproportionate number of incidents involving passengers’ personal electronic devices (PEDs) slipping between the gaps of the business class seats on its Boeing 777s, and creating a fire hazard after being crushed in the electrically adjustable mechanism.

Runway Girl Network can reveal that the carrier experienced yet another PED battery scare on a recent 777 flight. In this latest incident, an iPad fell behind a business class seat during descent and, as the passenger was putting the seat-back into its upright position, a crack was heard. A source on board the aircraft says “it smelled like smoke” and crew conducted all the emergency procedures just in case (moved the passenger, pulled out the fire extinguisher, etc.). Fortunately, there was no fire and the plane landed safely.

However, because crew could not retrieve the iPad – the area where it fell behind the seat was unreachable – maintenance personnel had to retrieve it after landing using various tools, including a crowbar.

Air France disputes the presence of any resulting fumes or smoke on the aircraft, but it is taking the incident very seriously; this occurred less than four months after an 8 December 2013 incident in which a fire on board an Air France 777-200 was traced to a crushed lithium battery that fell into the seat mechanism, an event deemed similar to a separate 2 May 2013 fire on one of its 777s. French safety authorities issued recommendations to EASA as a result of the latter two incidents.

“All those involved in the aviation industry (manufacturers, suppliers, airlines, authorities) work together to prevent the risks associated with the use and transport of Lithium Polymer Ion batteries on board aircraft (Li-Po). As part of its 2014 risk prevention plan, Air France has immediately reminded and trained its crews to recognize and control of this type of incident,” an Air France spokesman tells Runway Girl Network.

Logic dictates that as more and more personal electronic devices are carried on board aircraft, the rate of PED lithium battery-related fires will increase. Certainly, as Air France suggests and as we’ve reported, the fire hazards associated with the transport of Li-Po batteries – whether in the cabin as part of passengers’ PEDs or in the cargo hold for shipment – represents an industry-wide problem. But this string of incidents specific to Air France begs the question – are the gaps in the carrier’s business class seat simply too wide?

B/E Aerospace today confirmed that its business class seat is currently installed on Air France’s 777s. The company declined further comment, including whether it believes a simple mesh system would remedy the problem until new seats are installed.

Speaking to us as chairman of the SAE seat committee and an FAA-DER, Zodiac Aerospace Seating VP of engineering Rakibul Islam previously said that seat design standards established by the SAE committee that oversees aircraft seats could specify that gaps between seat elements must be avoided and wherever possible eliminated in the next revision of the ARP-5526 standard.

In the nearer term, however, change at Air France is already afoot. Replacement of the carrier’s current business class seats with Zodiac Sicma’s new, hugely popular Cirrus seat is scheduled to begin as early as June. The creator of Cirrus, JPA Design, says it has “direct experience with integrating the new design features [of Cirrus] that are intended to counter this issue” of PEDs slipping into seat gaps.

A spokesman for the International Air Transport Association (IATA) says airlines “understand the importance of doing all they can to mitigate these types of events in the passenger cabin, but passengers must do their bit also, by ensuring that they charge and stow their devices safely”. IATA has updated its guidance to airlines on what crew should do in the event that a PED inadvertently slips or is dropped between the mechanical parts of an electrically adjustable seat.

Its recommendation states:

To prevent crushing of the PED and reduce the potential fire risk to the device and the surrounding area, cabin crew, and/or passengers must not use the electrical or mechanical seat functions in an attempt to retrieve a PED. Cabin crew should always advise the flight deck of the situation. Ask the passenger concerned to identify the item, and where they suspect it may have dropped or slipped into, and if they have moved the seat since misplacing the PED. Move the passenger and, if applicable, the passenger seated next to the affected seat from the area. If available, don fire gloves before trying to retrieve the item. Do not move the seat! If unable to retrieve the item, it may be necessary to move the passenger to another seat.

In the event that the situation develops into a lithium battery fire, cabin crew should apply the following as per their respective airline procedures:

  • Lithium battery fire-fighting procedures
  • Post-event procedures (on board); and
  • First point of landing offloading procedures

A source with knowledge of Air France’s procedures stresses the importance of crew and passengers adhering to ‘best practices’ on board. “In the case of fire from Li-Po, first you have to extinguish the fire, but also you have to be very careful and take care of what happens next, and reduce the temperature and so Air France’s best practice is to put the device under water to be sure that fire cannot recover. You have to be sure that someone is taking care of these devices and it is emerged with water and ice to reduce the temperature because the risk is temperature elevation and in that case, a fire will occur again.

“What is very important for safety in the aviation industry, when it comes to Li-Po batteries, is this is a problem with critical mass – it is a risk that the aviation industry is [grappling with].”

Lithium battery fire prevention is among a roster of important safety topics that will be addressed at the forthcoming IATA Cabin Operations Safety Conference in Madrid, Spain. Runway Girl Network is proud to be a media sponsor of this event, and will be reporting from Madrid.

Additionally, the topic will almost certainly be discussed by aircraft interiors stakeholders at the Aircraft Interiors Expo this week in Hamburg. A number of firms are now proposing PED shelfs, racks and other stowage solutions, including SkyCast, Acro, SmartTray, Zodiac and Geven. While these offerings aim to enable passengers to comfortably view content on their own PEDs – in essence, turning PEDs into seat-back IFE – we’re curious if “stowage-for-safety-purposes” might ultimately prove to be their biggest selling points.

6 Comments

  1. Fascinating story, Mary. We have all heard of the smoke events from PEDs stashed in overhead bins and seen the YouTube videos of laptops catching fire at the airport gate. New technology, new threats. And that’s the way it goes.

  2. Vastra

    Neither Sicma, nor Zodiac Aerospace, nor Zodiac Seats are the manufacturers of the current Air France business class seats.
    Zodiac seats France was selected by Air France for the new business class seats, which will be delivered on the first aircraft by next summer.

    • Mary Kirby
      Author

      We were told otherwise by sources, and I reached out to Zodiac for comment (it said it could not provide comment). If not Sicma, then who? We’ll see Zodiac tomorrow at the Aircraft Interiors Expo and hope to get further clarity then, if this is indeed the case

  3. Kosta Gianakopoulos

    Mary, these seats are indeed B/E Aerospace seats, but I can also confirm that these seats have a mesh behind the seat to prevent such incidences. Your article implies that a mesh was never there and that a mesh would be needed. I have mentioned to you in the past that once a product is certified by aircraft interior companies and then is in service, it’s up to the customer (airlines) to make sure they follow the work instruction of the product in question. The question that needs to be asked is whether Air France did or did not re-install the mesh after routine maintenance of the seat. Your article states that Air France experiences an inordinate number of these events, without citing any statistics. But let’s think about the fact that this particular seat model on Air France is customized version of B/E’s Minipod seat, which had at one point, more than a 50% market share in business class. If there was a serious problem with this seat, it’s likely that a number of serious incidence would have already occurred and been reported to the authorities, which is not the case. As I stated, if the issue is so significant on Air France, maybe the root cause lies not in the seat but in the maintenance of the interior.

    Additionally, the electrical actuation systems on these seats are designed to detect when objects are trapped in the mechanism and limit the force applied to the trapped object. New seats have an even more advanced system.

    Finally, even in the event that a battery casing is cracked, the seats are electrically grounded and built from flame retardant materials to prevent a fire from starting and spreading. So there are already a number of safeguards in place to protect the passengers.

    • Mary Kirby
      Author

      Kosta – thanks for providing this information and for confirming that the seats originally had a mesh behind the seat. Your comment implies that I didn’t try to talk to B/E Aerospace and Air France about the mesh. And that, my friend, is not true. I can only report what I know, what I’ve been told (and what they’re willing to say), and let folks like yourself (who have intimate knowledge of a particular seat design) provide additional comment. Welcome to the B2B2C news model. Thanks for participating. 🙂

  4. Eduard Dorobantu

    Putting punctured lithium batteries under water is not the best thing to do due to the chemicals in lipo batteries will react with water releasing nasty irritant fumes.