EXPLOSIVE

10.15.15 5:13 AM ET

The Deadly Cargo Inside MH370: Exploding Batteries Explain the Mystery

Exclusive insight from inside Boeing and urgent new warnings from the FAA make a compelling case—based on fact, not conspiracy—about what happened.

Why have both the Federal Aviation Administration and Boeing suddenly both gone public in issuing warnings about the “immediate and urgent risk” (quoting the FAA) of allowing consignments of lithium-ion batteries to be shipped in the cargo of passenger-carrying flights?

Last Thursday’s statement by the FAA’s Angela Stubblefield, a hazardous materials expert, that there is now a body of evidence that the batteries can cause explosions and fires capable of destroying an airplane echoes the urgency of a warning sent to all airlines by Boeing in July that the shipment of batteries created “an unacceptable risk” to crew and passengers.

A week later Airbus followed, issuing a similar warning recommending that operators of all of its airplanes conduct “a full risk assessment” of what was rather vaguely termed “high quantities” of the batteries in cargo.

The Boeing warning was issued as a Multi Operator Message. These are normally issued to inform airlines of a newly detected safety problem experienced by an airline during operations and are related to a specific airplane type—but in this case the warning covered all Boeing airplanes. The warnings are also issued following a crash if investigators have homed in on a possible cause.

Specifically, the Boeing warning recommended that “high density packages of lithium-ion batteries and cells not be transported as cargo on passenger airplanes until such time as safer methods of transport are established and followed.”

No precursor event was cited—publicly. However, as I have previously reported, as part of the investigation into the loss of Malaysian Airlines Flight 370, Boeing has run computer simulations aimed at re-creating the behavior of the Boeing 777 during the last hours of its course into the southern Indian Ocean.

One persistently discussed scenario is whether the airplane was stricken by a fire in a cargo hold initiated in a consignment of lithium-ion batteries. There is now certainly a solid body of circumstantial evidence to justify including this scenario’s effects in a simulation.

Moreover, the FAA and Boeing warnings add weight to the credibility of a scenario involving a battery fire. There are nine areas that Boeing urges should be the subject of a “safety assessment.” Three have a salient bearing on what investigators into the case of Flight 370 will have particularly focused on:

The fire protection and suppression equipment in the 777’s two cargo bays; the location of battery consignments in the cargo bays; and the flight profile—the route, the duration of the flight and whether it involves flying over water. (A large part of Flight 370’s planned route to Beijing was over the South China Sea.)

The Daily Beast asked Boeing specific questions about these three critical points—about the effectiveness of the 777’s fire suppression system in the event of a battery-initiated fire, about whether consignments of batteries should ever be shipped on trans-oceanic flights and whether there was empirical evidence that placing such consignments in particular locations in the cargo bays represented a greater danger than placing them in other locations.

A Boeing spokesman, Doug Alder, responded: “We aren’t going to provide specifics.”

The essential record of the batteries in the shipment aboard Flight 370 begins the day before departure, March 7 last year. According to a report by the government of Malaysia (PDF), the “fresh” single cells making up the batteries were manufactured at a Motorola Solutions plant in Bayan Lepas, an industrial center 215 miles northwest of Kuala Lumpur. On March 7 batteries for mobile phones were assembled by combining two of the small single cells for each phone. On March 8 the assembled batteries were trucked to Kuala Lumpur and loaded along with the rest of the cargo of the 777.

Employees of environmental protection and coastal cleanup organisations look for debris from the ill-fated Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 on a beach in Sainte-Marie de la Reunion, between Champ Borne and the Rivière du Mât river, on the French Reunion Island in the Indian Ocean, on August 10, 2015. 'A thorough search', as announced by the city of Saint-André, started on Monday morning along the coastline of this small town on the French island of Reunion, where a fragment of a wing belonging to the MH370 flight was found. The tiny French Indian Ocean territory has been under intense scrutiny since a beach cleaner found a washed-up wing part, which Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak later declared was part of the Boeing 777 that mysteriously vanished 17 months ago.

Richard Bouhet/AFP/Getty

The batteries did not undergo safety checks after assembly, although they were “inspected physically” and the shipment was not designated as “dangerous goods” because the packaging met the current lax international guidelines for the shipment of the batteries by air.

I asked Dr. Victor Ettel, an expert on the science and manufacture of lithium-ion batteries, to review the packaging and shipping procedures followed by Motorola. To begin with he said that shipping batteries immediately after manufacture was “asking for trouble” because it did not allow sufficient time for rigorous quality control checks at both the manufacturing and assembly stages. 

The assembled batteries were packed in individual boxes, two of these boxes were then put, side-by-side, into a brown box carrying the standard international warning about the dangers of lithium-ion batteries (identical to what you would find if you have a phone battery delivered by UPS to your home, with an icon of flames and in bold type “DO NOT LOAD OR TRANSPORT PACKAGE IF DAMAGED.”)

Twelve of the brown boxes went into a larger box (there were thus 24 battery packs in each of these larger boxes) and those boxes were consolidated with others on wooden pallets for shipment, and finally the pallets were sealed in plastic and polystyrene sheets.

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The total weight of the batteries in the shipment was 487 pounds, a relatively small part of a total 5,400-pound Motorola shipment including walkie-talkie chargers and accessories. But Dr. Ettel said that the size and concentration of the battery component was certainly enough to create the kind of critical mass that would fuel a catastrophic fire.

Previous fires involving lithium-ion batteries have been triggered by a short-circuit in a single cell followed by ignition that spills from one cell into the next, beginning what is technically known as a “thermal runaway.” In the way that the Motorola consignment was assembled there was no insulation to prevent this from happening at any stage.

Reviewing these details, Dr. Ettel said, “This is a recipe for making a single ‘venting with flame’ into an event that includes the whole shipment and, like any lithium-ion battery fire, is difficult to stop by conventional methods.”

Even so, Motorola was not acting any differently in its handling of the shipment than any other manufacturer. They followed the guidelines prescribed in the international regulations. As the International Federation of Air Line Pilots Association, IFALPA, said in statement expressing its concerns about the flaws in those regulations, “Industry practice often results in many smaller packages being shipped together. When this occurs, tens of thousands of batteries may be shipped on pallets aboard aircraft while being excepted from the majority of dangerous good provisions.”

It follows that the next essential question is precisely where the Motorola battery consignment was placed aboard Flight 370.

The whole Motorola shipment was divided into three separate cargo pallets. Two went into the forward cargo bay and one into the far end of the rear cargo bay.

A fire in either location would be serious (any fire on an airplane is serious) but the forward cargo bay is located immediately behind what could be called the cerebral cortex of the 777: the Main Equipment Center (MEC), or electronics bay.

The two side-by-side Motorola pallets were placed in the forward cargo bay, beneath the passenger cabin and just ahead of the wings. Beyond them was a large empty space, equal to the size of four pallets. That left three rows of side-by-side containers holding passenger luggage. The electronics bay was separated from this luggage by a bulkhead.

Illustration by The Daily Beast

In the case of Flight 370 the exact location of the batteries in the cargo hold is potentially of huge importance. A fire originating in that location could degrade the airplane’s ability to suppress a fire by crucially changing the flow of air (and oxygen).

The cargo hold has a special liner intended to contain a fire until it is extinguished. A battery fire might well have been intense enough to breach the liner and, in doing so, allow the airflow to weaken the concentration (and therefore the effectiveness) of the Halon gas used as a fire suppressant.

When a new airplane is flight tested, its ability to survive smoke and fire is an important part of the program. A very dense but safe “test smoke” is pumped into the airplane. One of the key objectives is to identify the airflow patterns to determine, for example, how long concentrations of the Halon fire suppressant retain their effectiveness, how long it takes for smoke to properly be dispelled from the passenger cabin, or when more fire suppressant is needed in a cargo compartment.

It is also especially important to assure that if smoke ever enters the cockpit it is quickly dispelled, to make sure that the pilots are not overcome by it.

Pilots are equipped with special oxygen masks (and goggles) with a long-duration oxygen supply, to cope not just with smoke but with a loss of cabin pressurization that could incapacitate them.

An expert with long experience of the Boeing 777, who for professional reasons cannot be identified, was shown the position of the Motorola containers on Flight 370.

He told me that a “sufficiently serious” lithium-ion battery fire could have overwhelmed the fire suppression equipment in the cargo hold. A fire initiated in the battery consignment and sustained by fuel in the form of baggage would, he said, be far more severe than the fire protection system was able to handle, even though it met the current regulatory standards.

And, he said, that fire could well have breached the cargo hold liner and compromised the wall separating the cargo from the Main Equipment Center.

In the 777, as in all airplanes, the fire suppression system is initiated by the pilots after a fire warning and can be directed at either the forward or rear cargo holds.

The Halon gas in the cargo holds is held in bottles and released in two phases in the event of a fire. Some of the gas is automatically “dumped” at the onset of a fire, aimed at immediately quenching the smoke and flames. If that fails a second battery of bottles releases the Halon in a metered flow that can last as long as 180 minutes.

Halon gas, says Dr. Ettel, would not be effective against the internal stages of a thermal runaway when the very high energy stored in a battery is converted to heat. “I doubt the amount of Halon designed for dousing flame combustion in cargo would make much difference to the internally generated heat of lithium-ion batteries in a runaway condition.”

Fire isn’t the only hazard presented by a shipment of lithium-ion batteries. Dr. Ettel explains: “The organic electrolyte in lithium-ion batteries decomposes at high temperatures, generating very toxic fumes typically containing compounds of fluorine and even arsenic.” (If the fumes reached the cabin and flight deck the passengers and crew would be incapacitated.)

Given the catalog of well-documented and serious risks involved in shipping lithium-ion batteries by air it might seem surprising that it was left to Boeing and Airbus to be the first to issue urgent warnings about the threat that they are now recognized to pose to passenger-carrying flights. Why was the FAA three months behind them?

It is not that the FAA isn’t alarmed. Thursday’s statement by Stubblefield showed just how worried they are. But they are trapped in a classic catch-22.

They are prohibited from taking action by legislation passed by Congress in 2012, as part of measures taken to ostensibly “streamline” the FAA’s regulatory processes. As a result of this the FAA cannot issue rules that are more stringent than those already enforced by the International Civil Aviation Organization, (ICAO) a United Nations body based in Montreal that has a long history of bureaucratic paralysis and passivity in the face of industry lobbying—and in the case of lithium-ion batteries they have been predictably derelict.

The ICAO is holding a meeting later this month to review the situation and it is now clear that the FAA will press hard for action.

The FAA is clearly frustrated. In effect, their power to regulate has been outsourced to a body with no public accountability in the United States (contradicting Congress’s long-held aversion to engaging with any extranational jurisdictions). FAA experts have amply demonstrated the risks involved. In 2013 they staged tests on an old airframe to show the devastating effects of a thermal runaway in various sizes and combinations of battery shipments.

“Everything we find out makes it look worse and worse,” an official involved in the testing told the Associated Press. “We’ve been very lucky so far, but at some point that is going to end and it’s going to be very difficult to explain because everyone knows how dangerous these shipments are.”

Another FAA specialist on hazardous materials, Janet McLaughlin, said on Thursday that the U.S. position at the Montreal meeting of the ICAO will go beyond bulk shipments of batteries and include recommending a ban on shipments of any size in cargo holds.

FIRE IN THE BRAIN OF A BRILLIANT AIRCRAFT

If Malaysia Flight 370 was severely crippled by a fire that began with a consignment of lithium-ion batteries in a cargo hold how could it have continued flying, apparently normally, for six hours until it fell into the Indian Ocean? And why was nothing heard from the pilots again from the moment that the Boeing 777 departed from its flight path to Beijing in the early hours of March 8, 2014?

Both questions lie at the core of aviation’s greatest mystery. Looking for the answers involves delving deep into the history and architecture of the 777, an airplane with an extraordinary safety record that its designers intended to be “fault tolerant” beyond any previous Boeing airplane.

Experts with many years of knowledge of the airplane and its systems have, at the request of The Daily Beast, reconstructed the possible sequence of events that doomed the flight and the 239 people on board.

The 777’s three principal channels of communication all stopped working: radio contact from the cockpit, the transponder that automatically transmits a signal enabling the flight to be tracked by radar, and, at 30-minute intervals, the ACARS system automatically sending data on the airplane’s performance and condition to the airline.

This sequence of events marked the beginning of the catastrophe and immediately provided fuel for rampant speculation. For the pilots it seemed to look bad: the transponder and ACARS had been “switched off” was the almost universal verdict. (The rush to judgment on the pilots was led by Malaysia’s tawdry political leaders for whom the pilots looked to be perfect scapegoats.)

Just why this prejudicial version was so quickly and so easily accepted (and why it has endured) is puzzling. At the very least the first reasoned response should have been that the two systems had failed, leaving open whether this was as a result of deliberate action or a technical failure.

Equally puzzling is the assumption that the sudden change of course toward the Straits of Malacca was also sinister. In truth, it was entirely consistent with the pilots desperately needing to find the nearest airport in an emergency. For example, on nearby Langkawi Island there was a modern airport with a 12,500-foot runway, ideal in such a situation. (The second change of course that directed the 777 toward the great void of the southern Indian Ocean is also given sinister motivation even though it makes no sense as a malignly planned outcome that took six hours to execute rather than as a sign of cascading technical failures.)

I asked both an expert with unrivaled and intimate knowledge of the 777 (who for professional reasons asked to remain anonymous) and Dr. Ettel to address these extraordinarily persistent and seemingly ineluctable assertions of what happened, with their clear (and often intentional) innuendo that some kind of foul play was involved.

Dr. Ettel took the view that the likely effects of a fire initiated in the two pallets of lithium-ion batteries placed in the forward cargo hold—and the proximity of the cargo hold to the 777’s electronics nerve center—could have caused the loss of the communications and navigation systems by destroying the power supply line to them, but not the loss of flight controls:

“Even if the transponders were located in different parts of the airplane they could have been disabled by a fire in the electronics bay, instead of by a deliberate action by a pilot or a terrorist entering the electronics bay, as has been suggested. It is therefore conceivable that the electronic and navigational systems in the bay could have been disabled [by fire], leaving only the hydraulic systems working.”

This is an arresting point because throughout the whole flight one essential power source remained working, and working flawlessly: the two Rolls-Royce engines. They supplied the power to operate the hydraulics systems that included the main flight controls. Not only that, but the 777 has three independent hydraulic systems, any one of which can provide full and continuing control of the airplane—whether to pilots or to the auto-pilot—in the event the others fail.

The inevitable challenge to Dr. Ettel’s analysis is it supposes that if there was a fire, then it was in some way contained and died out before it could fatally degrade the airplane’s structure. One possible answer to this challenge was spelt out in a recent investigation by the British Air Accident Investigation Branch after investigating a fire originating in a lithium-manganese dioxide battery used to power a small emergency transmitter. They said that it is possible for fires at cruising altitude and speed to be extinguished when exposed to extremely cold air and a forceful slipstream, through what is called the “heat transfer” effect.

Another answer, forcefully elaborated by the Boeing 777 expert, stresses that the aircraft is of an extraordinarily robust design.

“This is arguably the best and safest airplane ever built, it is simply one amazing jet in its robustness. I have not a shred of doubt in my mind that it could have continued to fly after the event, even with the incapacitation of the flight crew.”

More safety features were built into the 777 than into any earlier Boeing airliner. That is because, in addition to the normal concerns for total safety, the 777’s designers were under immense pressure to confound a core tenet of the safety regime for large jets: that only such an aircraft with two engines flying over oceans should, in the event of an engine failure, never be more than 180 minutes’ flying time from the nearest usable runway no matter where in the world, from the Arctic to the Indian Ocean. This regime is called ETOPS—Extended-range Twin-engine Operational Performance Standards.

With the 777, Boeing was pushing to not only extend the ETOPS limit way beyond 180 minutes but to do it with an airplane much larger than any previous twin-engine jet. This belief was driven partly by the fact that engine failure was becoming increasingly rare; partly because there was enough power left in a remaining engine to safely get to an emergency landing spot even if it took several hours—and, not least, because to airlines the economics of the large twin were mouth-wateringly superior to those of jets with three or four engines.

A significant advancement with the 777 was an ambitious, multi-layered computer system called the Aircraft Information Management System, AIMS, designed by Honeywell. At one point there were 750 Honeywell engineers working on the 777. A Honeywell document recording the program calls it “the first application of an integrated computing architecture in a commercial air transport.” The 777 had far more computing power than any previous Boeing airliner.

This was driven to meet a demand from the airlines who wanted an airplane that would be much easier (and less costly) to maintain, that could spend less time on the ground and more in the air and longer periods between maintenance checks. They wanted—and got—an airplane that was able to self-diagnose its vital systems and, if there was a failure in one system, switch to another… and if that failed switch to another… and, in some cases, if that failed, switch to a fourth and still be safe to fly.

All this went beyond the normal “fail-safe” principle or regulatory requirements that if a crucial system failed there would always be a backup. In fact, the 777 engineers gave assurances that the new airplane would be “fault tolerant” at a level beyond any previous design.

It worked. The 777 delivered what the airlines wanted. It proved so reliable that eventually its flawless ETOPS performance led the FAA to certify that it could fly on transoceanic routes where it would be more than five hours’ flying time from the nearest runway. (Even after the loss of Flight 370 the airplane’s safety record remains exemplary.)

But, as with virtually all similar passenger jets, many of the 777’s critical electronic systems are concentrated in one place: the Main Equipment Center below and just behind the cockpit. This means that it can be vulnerable to the effects of fire in the forward cargo hold—one of the reasons high emphasis is given to robust fire suppression systems in the cargo compartments.

On Flight 370 the six containers of passenger luggage were in a cargo compartment immediately behind the rear wall of the MEC—with empty space between them and the shipment of new lithium-ion batteries. In the MEC on the other side of that wall, is the location of the two AIMS cabinets, as well as some key electric power system components serving the whole airplane, and bundles of wire reaching most parts of the airplane.

Also, on the other side of the wall between the cargo compartment and the MEC, there are computers that control key communications systems, including radio communications to and from the flight deck, a transponder unit processing data to be transmitted to air traffic controllers, and a Quick Access Recorder that preserves a detailed technical history of a flight.

Illustration by The Daily Beast

However, the 777 expert, who spent more than 30 hours reviewing the technical details with me, stressed that due to the location of these various electronic components in the MEC there are many possible combinations of failure scenarios should the forward cargo hold ever be breached by fire.

 “Only the debris field and examination of key components from the fuselage will likely tell us the real story. However, I believe at this point the probability of on-board hostile takeover by a crew member or passenger, then turning off the transponder, has a very low probability.”

Indeed, the expert gives this careful estimate of the possible causes of the disaster:

A fire originating in the consignment of lithium-ion batteries, quite possible; a deliberate act involving something planted in the cargo, or other deliberate hostile action, possible; some as yet unknown or un-postulated cause, possible but unlikely.

THE BATTERY THREAT TO AIRCRAFT IS GROWING

Some 5 billion lithium-ion battery cells are manufactured in the world every year. Nobody knows how many are shipped in the cargo holds of passenger jets. But the demand for them can only increase: They power a whole panoply of digital devices and the number is expected to increase to 8 billion a year by 2025.

It’s a statistical inevitability that with such a huge production volume and the inherent risks involved some cells will have manufacturing flaws, or be maladroitly assembled, or be damaged during the often long journey between the factory and the ultimate user. Handling by shippers can be sloppy and poorly supervised. Bulk consignments can be improperly assembled. When it comes to airline safety nobody has a grip.

As is all too common in the airline industry, facing up to the real risks of shipping these batteries by air and acting to minimize those risks is left in the end to the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), based in Montreal. The buck stops there, after being kicked along merrily by other bureaucracies and interest groups. And the buck then disappears down an infinite wormhole.

Many airlines have not waited for the ICAO to act. There is no official list of airlines that have, over the past year, already voluntarily decided to stop shipping the batteries on passenger flights. However The Daily Beast has obtained an unofficially gathered list, although it may be incomplete. In the U.S. it includes American, Delta, United, and Southwest. Internationally it includes British Airways, Cathay Pacific, Emirates, Etihad, Hong Kong Airlines, Iberia and Iberia Express, Jetstar, Lufthansa, Dragonair, Air Hong Kong, Qantas, Singapore Airlines, and Virgin Australia.

(It is important for passengers to note that flights originating in Southeast Asia are the most likely to be used to ship batteries from factories, particularly from Taiwan, China, Korea, and Malaysia.)

According to the FAA, airlines flying to and from the U.S. that still accept lithium-ion battery shipments in cargo carry 26 million passengers a year. And during Thursday’s public FAA hearing into the issue the battery industry was still pushing back against a ban.

George Kerchner, executive director of the Rechargable Battery Association, said that some airlines had made their own safety assessments and determined that they could continue to safely carry the batteries in cargo. He said the airlines were better able to decide the safety issue than the government.

In July, shortly after the Boeing warning went out to airlines (but not as a result of it) there was a meeting of the ICAO body that is supposed be dealing with the issue—the title of the meeting conveys the mindset involved: International Multidisciplinary Lithium Battery Transport Coordination Meeting.

Nothing actually resulted from this meeting. The objective was not to agree on banning shipments of lithium-ion batteries on passenger jets but to propose and agree on new standards of safety for packaging, handling, and shipping them. The meeting had no result because it proved impossible to agree on a definition of “high-density” as applied to the way multiple battery packages were consolidated. How big was too big? Where should the line be drawn? Nobody knew.

An appendix to the minutes of the meeting noted that representatives of the International Airline Pilots’ Association, IFALPA, had “expressed disappointment” with the lack of support for their own recommendations.

But when I talked to the chairman of the IFALPA group assigned to the issue, Mark Rogers, he said that the real stumbling block was that the ICAO had offered no formal text that could be voted on.

The IFALPA represents 100,000 airline pilots who fly with airlines based in 100 countries. The pilots are, obviously, extremely anxious to see some action. Rogers told me he that he has been pushing the issue for 10 years. (Boeing are apt to use the IFALPA as a channel to publicize their own concerns directly to pilots rather than spell them out for the general public.)

Rogers is not optimistic that the ICAO will take action any time soon: “It will take several more years to find an ultimate solution that will insure the safety of the aircraft,” he told me.  

He hopes that this constipated process can, in fact, be outflanked by getting airlines themselves to agree on a worldwide ban on battery shipments aboard passenger jets until new fireproof packaging is developed, tested, and approved by regulators.

French gendarmes and police inspect a large piece of plane debris which was found on the beach in Saint-Andre, on the French Indian Ocean island of La Reunion, July 29, 2015. France's BEA air crash investigation agency said it was examining the debris,  in coordination with Malaysian and Australian authorities, to determine whether it came from Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370, which vanished last year in one of the biggest mysteries in aviation history. Picture taken July 29, 2015.

Prisca Bigot/Reuters

A much higher standard for the safety of packaging is essential because no matter how rigorous quality control standards are in manufacturing the batteries the risk of fire, initiated by a short circuit, remains inherent in the batteries’ chemistry. The National Renewable Engergy Laboratory in the U.S., for example, could not find a test method that was reliable: “An internal short hazard is one of the most difficult to reproduce, yet the most important to solve,” they reported.

It is telling that when the Boeing 787 Dreamliner was grounded after thermal runaway fires in the large lithium-ion batteries that power much of the airplane’s systems Boeing decided that the only way to ensure the future safety of the airplane was to encase the batteries in armor.

But even that drastic step was not the end of the Dreamliner’s vulnerability to the batteries. In 2013 an Ethiopian Airlines 787 caught fire while parked at London’s Heathrow. A report by British investigators released last month attributed it to a failure in a lithium-manganese dioxide battery that powered an emergency locator beacon near the tail of the airplane. The report says: “Neither the cell-level nor battery-level safety features prevented this single cell failure, which propagated to adjacent cells, resulting in a cascading thermal runaway...”

Although pilots have made passenger flights their first priority, the issue of more secure packaging remains urgent and personal to them for another reason: Every day they are flying cargo jets where the consignments of batteries are generally larger, more numerous and more frequent than on passenger jets—and they have proved lethal.

In 2010 a United Parcels Service Boeing 747 freighter crashed near Dubai after the pilots reported a fire 22 minutes after taking off. (The two pilots died.) Investigators traced the origin of the fire to a consignment of lithium-ion batteries. The fire disabled the crew’s oxygen system and smoke filled the cockpit within minutes of the first warning. (UPS has since introduced new cargo containers that can withstand a fire for up to four hours.)

In 2011 another Boeing 747 freighter operated by Asiana Airlines flying from Seoul to Shanghai was lost flying over water after a fire that destroyed the airplane’s flight controls in five minutes. There were two pallets of lithium-ion batteries in the cargo. Although wreckage was found at a depth of 300 feet the flight data recorder was not recovered, making it impossible for Korean investigators to definitively conclude that fire began in the battery shipment, although few pilots have any doubt that it did.

Crashes involving only pilots and no passengers barely get noticed yet, as these two examples do, they are alarming because they show how quickly a large airplane can be disabled by a fire triggered inside a consignment of batteries.

The human calamity of Flight 370 continues to bring out the worst in those responsible for the safety of the world’s airlines. The blatant foot-dragging of regulators like the ICAO; the evasions and buck-passing of Boeing when faced with a clear and present danger; most of all the inscrutable investigation.

There are so many interests at stake in the outcome: They include Boeing and all the participants in the development of the 777; Malaysian Airlines; the stewards, military and civilian, of the airspace from Kuala Lumpur to the vanishing point over the Indian Ocean; most troubling of all the political players in Malaysia, dominated by a prime minister who is unable to explain how $700 million suddenly appeared in his personal bank account, a scandal that has provoked protests in the streets.

These political pressures have been publicly visible in a series of impulsive, erratic, contradictory, and sometimes bizarre statements about the fate of Flight 370 but we can only guess how this kind of behavior influences or affects the investigation itself when out of sight.

Officially the investigation is led by a political appointee, Kok Soo Chon, a former head of Malaysia’s civil aviation authority—not as would be the case in the U.S. or Europe by a professional and independent specialist investigator. (Chon was once Malaysia’s representative on the ICAO.)

There is no reason to doubt the professionalism or dedication of the investigators involved, from America, Europe, Australia, and Malaysia. Nevertheless, they must be vulnerable not only to the political in-fighting in Kuala Lumpur but, inevitably, also inhibited in what they can say publicly by an army of international lawyers involved in insurance and legal settlements with the relatives of the victims, as well as the huge potential liabilities faced by powerful corporations if the critical remains of the 777 are found.

The last thing that seems to be on the minds of this coalition of interests is whether the same thing could happen again. That, finally, is the purpose of every air crash investigation—did something go wrong that had never gone wrong before, and can it recur?

Now, 18 months after the loss of Flight 370, it is self-evident that the only thing on the 777 that we can say with certainty did present a potential threat to safety was in the cargo bay—and that that threat, of a fire initiated in a consignment of lithium-ion batteries, is now considered unacceptable by Boeing, the FAA, and the majority of airline pilots.