There has been a huge rise in fire incidents involving lithium-ion batteries on board aircraft this year.

It is one of the few rising risks in aviation which is often regarded as the safest way to travel but such fires are now happening once every 10 or 11 days on a flight somewhere in the USA alone.

So far this year the Federal Aviation Administration in the USA has reported at least 18 incidents involving lithium-ion batteries on airplanes and in airports compared to 31 incidents in the whole of 2016. That compares with 16 incidents in 2015, nine in 2014, and eight in 2013. 

The batteries are used to power all modern devices ranging from mobile phones to laptops.

This has led to major airlines turning to new anti-fire devices such as AvSax which are carried on all Delta planes and one is seen in action (left).

The AvSax is a special fire-retardant bag used when lithium-ion batteries catch fire and has been deployed on planes several times already this year

Simply pour at least two litres of water into an AvSax and then drop the burning device into the bag. The water activates the polymer gel inside the bag causing it to expand around the device. Should the device keep on venting then the AvSax is tough enough to absorb the force.

John Cox, a veteran pilot and an airline safety consultant with special expertise on lithium-ion batteries in aviation, said: “It’s one of the few rising risks in aviation.”

He added that any flight might contain hundreds of lithium-ion cells in phones and laptops and that many rechargeable devices involved in these fires - such as wireless headphones and especially e-cigarettes - weren’t even on the market a few years ago.

Recently a JetBlue flight from New York to San Francisco was diverted to Grand Rapids, Michigan, for an emergency landing after an e-cigarette charger caught fire

Chief scientific officer James H Dickerson, a physicist and former administrator at the Department of Energy’s Center for Functional Nanomaterials at Brookhaven National Laboratory, said: “Battery fires are particularly dangerous because they burn very hot, they can emit toxic by-products, and they tend to flare up even after it seems like they’ve been extinguished.”