Everyone in commercial aviation, and many experienced travelers, likely realize that safety is the primary function of the cabin crew. I would wager, however, that only a small fraction of that group ever has thought of flight attendants as on-call firefighters, as the first line of defense against in-flight fires in the cabin. But that is how U.S. National Transportation Safety Board Chairman Christopher A. Hart described cabin crew in his keynote address to the International Air Transport Association (IATA) Cabin Operations Safety Conference in May, and to be honest, the description, while obviously accurate, surprised me a little. Like many, I had never thought of flight attendants in that way, but it is clear that is the view the industry needs to take.
During his remarks, Hart called for robust fire fighting training for cabin crews. He asked the audience to think of how often aircraft rescue and fire fighting (ARFF) personnel participate in drills, and then he said: “ARFF doesn’t fight in-flight fires; cabin crewmembers do. So when considering recurrent crew training in fire fighting, let me suggest that hands-on training should be comprehensive and rigorous.”
After listening to Hart’s remarks and reviewing guidance material and other information available from IATA and the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration, I have to agree with the chairman. And not only should training be comprehensive and rigorous, it also should focus on the potential for lithium metal and lithium ion battery-smoke events and fires.
As Hart pointed out, the math is pretty simple. Lithium batteries that power personal electronic devices fail at a rate of one in 10 million, which on its own is not the issue. But last year, the international commercial air transport industry operated 38 million flights and carried nearly 3.7 billion passengers. When I travel on business, I carry a phone, a tablet and a laptop computer. If I’m going somewhere picturesque, I’ll also carry a camera. That’s four lithium batteries. Now multiply that by the number of passengers on the flight and you can see how quickly the potential for an event increases.
It is incumbent on the industry to provide the type of training that flight attendants need to keep themselves, passengers and other crewmembers safe.
As an aside, I’d like to congratulate the IATA Cabin Operations Safety Task Force for another well-run, informative and useful event. Last month’s conference in Paris was the second, and I’m already looking forward to next year’s event. Given that runway excursions have been identified by IATA as one of three high-risk categories to be continually addressed by the industry, and that most accidents over the past five years have occurred in the landing phase of flight, the importance of an emphasis on cabin safety can only grow.