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Qantas' cardboard meal boxes catch alight and smoulder in aircraft ovens

Cardboard meal boxes for Qantas economy passengers have been found smouldering in ovens at the back of planes and on one occasion caught alight.

In an incident just over two weeks ago, flight attendants discovered flames in an oven on a Qantas 737 aircraft just 5 minutes after they had begun heating cardboard boxes full of food such as meat pastries and sandwiches. 

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Meal boxes found smouldering on Qantas planes

Flight attendants have taken scores of photographs of singed cardboard meal boxes to highlight their concerns.

The cabin crew used a fire extinguisher on the food which they had heated at the correct temperature of 275 degrees Celsius.

The plane was on the ground at the time in preparation for take off.

Flight attendants have been taking scores of photographs of scorched boxes for the past few weeks to document their concerns.

The Flight Attendants Association of Australia, which represents thousands of Qantas staff, had been demanding for several weeks that the airline remove the affected cardboard boxes from service and carry out an independent review.

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It also took its concerns to Australia's air-safety regulator, the Civil Aviation Safety Authority.

"It is extremely important that you are vigilant and report every incident of abnormal marking/scorching, moisture, smell," the union said in a note to flight attendants on February 5 following the most serious incident. 

"Your association believes there has been significant under-reporting of scorched boxes and that it has become 'normalized'. Qantas maintains it is not a product safety problem."

The incidents of scorched meal boxes have been limited to Qantas' 737 aircraft, which have convection ovens, unlike its twin-aisle A330 planes which use steam-based ovens.

Qantas has since removed two ovens from its planes.

The union said testing immediately after the incident late last month revealed boxes were still scorched despite the removal of a third rung from the bottom of ovens to allow better air circulation as engineers had advised.

However, after meeting Qantas management on Wednesday afternoon, the union said it had been given assurances that the product was safe and crews would be given further instructions about how to heat the meal boxes on planes.

The national secretary of the FAAA's domestic division, Jo Ann Davidson, said the union had been inundated with photographs of scorched meal boxes from crew.

"Having had a meeting with senior management today, I have been given an assurance that the product is totally safe," she said.

A Qantas spokeswoman said changes had been made as a precaution to the way crews prepare meals, including reducing the number loaded into ovens at any one time, and reducing heat.

"Both the ovens and the oven-safe cardboard are used by many airlines around the world, and we've done additional testing over the past couple of months to ensure that they are safe," she said.

"We serve millions of meals in these boxes on hundreds of thousands of flights each year, so this is obviously an extremely rare event."

The ovens on Qantas' 737 fleet are designed to contain heat and fire and have a cut-off protection when they reach a certain temperature. The airline has been using cardboard meal boxes on domestic flights for the past three years. 

As a safety precaution, the union advised Qantas early this month that ovens should be switched off during take off while cabin crew are seated. Any remaining heating can resume once flight attendants are on their feet.

A spokesman for CASA said Qantas was keeping it informed of the issue.

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