An Air China jet has been pulled out of service and may be grounded for good after a portion of its front fuselage was engulfed in flames while passengers were boarding at Beijing’s Capital International Airport on Tuesday evening.

Terrified passengers and crew members were swiftly evacuated from the Airbus A330 airliner and no one was hurt as firefighters scrambled to douse the flames that spread through the cabin and along the roof of the plane.

Onlookers said the airframe partly collapsed in the blaze. The wide-body plane, bearing the registration number B-5958, was less than five years old and had just returned from Singapore and was about to fly to Tokyo’s Haneda Airport when the fire broke out.

Photos of the fire suggest the plane could have been damaged beyond repair.

Smoke from the plane could be seen from across the apron.
The Air China A330 plane is likely to be written off due to the damage. Photos: Weibo

About 100 passengers were aboard the plane when the cabin crew saw the fire detection lights were flashing red at about 5:30pm and found black fumes spouting out from the front cargo bay right beneath the passenger cabin. They ordered an emergency evacuation.

The passengers dashed to safety via airbridges back to the airport’s Terminal 3 and many wondered if they would have cheated death if the fire had broken out while the plane was airborne.

Beijing’s Airport Authority insisted on its Weibo account that there were no passengers on board when the plane caught fire.

A preliminary investigation on Wednesday linked the fire to the lithium battery packs inside the main deck cargo compartment, but questions have been raised about if the batteries were part of a consignment or part of the plane’s own power supply system.

Lithium batteries and their cells that power handsets and electrical cars are increasingly seen by the aviation industry as highly combustible and therefore dangerous.

A file photo shows an A330 plane lifting off from Beijing Capital International Airport. Photo: Weibo via planespotters.net/Fan Lin

The incident is being compared with the UPS Airlines Flight 6, a Boeing 747-400 cargo jet hauling a large number of lithium batteries that crashed near Dubai due to an in-flight fire in September 2010.

The accident triggered a re-evaluation of safety protocols protecting airliners from cockpit smoke and the US Federal Aviation Administration also issued a restriction on carrying lithium batteries in bulk on passenger flights. A final investigation concluded that the fire was caused by the autoignition of more than 81,000 lithium batteries in a cargo pallet.

Reports by Chinese papers also say Air China may stand to lose about 1.7 billion yuan (US$237 million) if the structural safety of the aircraft was compromised and must be written off as a total loss. The Chinese flag carrier noted in a financial report in 2016 that it secured discounts from Airbus for its purchase of the A330s, with an average net price of US$241 million. The carrier maintains a fleet of 58 A330s.

Reports also say Air China will notify Airbus of the incident and the latter may dispatch technicians to look into the cause of the fire, but neither the carrier nor China’s civil aviation watchdog has any plan to temporarily ground the A330 planes.

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