Just as flying starts to turn feral in Australia the safety investigator has made it clear the next generation of plastic airliners will be a lot more toxic than Airbus, Boeing or the carriers that buy them would like you to know.

As in dense clouds of hot, sharp, poisonous needles of carbon fibre and poisonous fumes from the burning layers of epoxy resins that bound them together.

The Australian Transport Safety Bureau’s study is a wake up call to the airports, airlines and emergency services about what a crash involving a Boeing 787 Dreamliner or the similarly plastic rich Airbus A350 will mean.

It says:

Composite structures that have shattered upon impact are likely to have produced airborne fibres that are needle-sharp, causing skin and eye irritation. Inhaled glass dust can remain in the lungs and cause pulmonary fibrosis and other asbestos-related diseases.

In the event of a post crash fire, smoke and toxic gases are released from decomposing composites, presenting further health risks. After an accident, fibre composite materials can reduce passenger survivability due to the unique hazards they pose.

It is important that emergency personnel evacuate passengers to a location upwind of the crash site to minimise their exposure to these hazards.

Qantas has up to 115 Dreamliners on order or optioned, and is keen on the A350. Dozens of major carriers will frequently fly each type to Australia by 2018.

Composites are already used in current airliners, but on nothing like the scale of the new designs.

The ATSB report says the failure characteristics of composite structures in aircraft remain imperfectly understood, and that in some circumstances, serious damage is very difficult to detect before it results in a catastrophic rupture.

Like safety authorities elsewhere, the ATSB is telling the airline industry that the hype about the new super lightweight high efficiency airliners is well in advance of the need for new knowledge and techniques to keep them safe in service, because they also come with new ways to die in an accident.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey