A lithium battery packed inside checked luggage is reported to have caused a cargo hold fire in an Emirates 777-300 over western China yesterday, forcing an emergency landing without injury in Urumqi.

There were 270 people on board the flight between Dubai and Beijing when the fire was detected according to a detailed report in The Aviation Herald.

The risks of lithium battery fires in aircraft have caused immense concern in safety organisations in recent years, and have been implicated in a number of cargo flight crashes this century.

There have also been incidents in which lithium batteries in mobile phones have burst into flames even while switched off on the ground, including in airport terminals, and inside aircraft in flight as a passenger carry on item.

The concerns about the batteries have also spread to tablets and PCs, where a small number of incidents have also been reported in general use.

The advice across safety authorities is unanimous. Passengers should carry their lithium battery powered devices with them into aircraft cabins so that they are readily accessible if they do ignite, as airlines train their cabin staff in extinguishing the intense fires that can follow a battery meltdown, and this capability has been proven in a number of incidents in recent years.

There is a detailed lay friendly article about lithium battery fires and how they can be prevented or extinguished on the ATSB web site, with further links to a CASA paper on their safe carriage. If your train commute involves long tunnels or you are about to take Eurostar between Paris and London, for the express, literally express, purpose of avoiding 90 minute passport inspection queues at the abysmally incompetently run London Heathrow airport, this is also recommended as a seriously useful read before boarding.

The case for screening checked luggage for lithium batteries, and confiscating the luggage and imposing seriously high fines on those who disobey the rules is gaining momentum.

Draconian? Not when compared to the possibility of killing a few hundred people, including yourself,  because you think the rules and risks don’t apply to you.