A holiday jet carrying 229 passengers narrowly avoided disaster when a wheelchair stored in the hold burst into flames shortly after landing at Manchester airport.
Ground staff unloading baggage from the hold of the First Choice holiday jet noticed blue sparks coming from the chair, it was revealed today.
The chair was removed from the Boeing 757-200 jet and placed on a vehicle - where it immediately burst into flames and was destroyed.
The scare happened on Sunday September 7, when the First Choice flight FCA 2662 jet landed in the early hours of the morning after a flight from Fuerteventura.
A spokeswoman for Manchester Airport praised the ground handling staff who "spotted the hazard and reacted quickly." The battery on the wheelchair should have been disconnected in the Canary Islands, she added.
The scare today prompted the Civil Aviation Authority to issue a warning to passengers about the dangers of "seemingly innocuous items," said a spokesman.
Geoff Leach, manager of the Dangerous Goods Office at the CAA, said: “Thankfully no-one was injured as a result of the Manchester incident.
"The cause of the fire is currently under investigation, but it does highlight the need for passengers to be extremely vigilant when taking items on board aircraft.
"Passengers need to be aware that some items, which are relatively innocuous in everyday use, are capable of posing a serious risk to the occupants of an aircraft, no matter where they are carried onboard and therefore need to be carefully checked.”
In highlighting the dangers, the CAA pointed to a fire aboard another aircraft in February, 2007, that was caused by a short circuiting camera battery.
The fire started in an overhead locker in an aircraft that had just taken off from New York JFK Airport. Cabin crew managed to extinguish the fire, but the aircraft had to return to New York for an emergency landing.
The CAA issued a checklist for battery powered wheelchairs:
- ensuring the battery is securely attached to the wheelchair;
- protecting the battery and chair from short circuiting; and
- ensuring that the wheelchair cannot become switched on during transport.
Spillable batteries are subject to additional requirements. In all cases, passengers should contact their airline in advance to check what special conditions apply, added the CAA.
Said Leach: “Passengers frequently travel with electronic gadgets or other battery powered items and, although the batteries in these rarely pose a safety problem, if they are loose or the equipment is inadvertently activated there is a danger of fire.”
A spokeswoman for First Choice said its flights are equipped with fire prevention equipment in the hold as a precautionary measure.
And she added: "Customer safety is of paramount importance to First Choice Airways and sister company Thomsonfly.
"We can confirm an electric wheelchair caught fire whilst it was being unloaded from the rear hold of the aircraft by ground handling staff at Manchester airport on September 7.
"The fire was swiftly brought under control and the wheelchair immediately removed from the vicinity of the aircraft. We would like to clarify that at no point were our passengers or crew in any danger.
"First Choice Airways and all ground handlers follow governing body guidelines as regards to handling battery powered wheelchairs.
"We are currently carrying out an investigation into the incident and are fully co-operating with the UK CAA Dangerous Goods Department."