Lithium batteries should not travel as airline cargo, U.N. panel decrees

AP, AFP-JIJI

A U.N. panel on Monday approved a temporary ban on shipments of rechargeable lithium batteries aboard passenger planes because they can burst into flames.

The decision by the Montreal-based International Civil Aviation Organization’s top-level governing council is not binding, but most countries follow the agency’s standards. The ban is effective April 1.

“This interim prohibition will continue to be in force as separate work continues through ICAO on a new lithium battery packaging performance standard, currently expected by 2018,” said Olumuyiwa Benard Aliu, the ICAO council’s president.

Namrata Kolachalam, a Transportation Department spokeswoman, called the ban “a necessary action to protect passengers, crews, and aircraft from the current risk to aviation safety.”

Lithium-ion batteries are used in a vast array of products, from cellphones and laptops to some electric cars. About 5.4 billion lithium-ion cells were manufactured worldwide in 2014. A battery is made up of two or more cells.

A majority of batteries are transported on cargo ships, but about 30 percent are shipped by air.

The ban does not apply to batteries packaged inside equipment like a laptop.

Airlines flying to and from the U.S. that accept lithium battery shipments carry 26 million passengers a year, the Federal Aviation Administration estimates.

The Rechargeable Battery Association (PRBA), which opposed the move, said in a statement that the industry is preparing to comply with the ban, but that there may be “significant disruption in the logistics supply chain,” especially for batteries used in medical devices.

The battery industry and manufacturers of consumer electronics that rely on the batteries also opposed the ban.

Aviation authorities have long known that the batteries can self-ignite, burning at temperatures above 593 degrees Celsius. That is near the melting point of aluminum, which is used in aircraft construction.

Safety concerns increased after FAA tests showed gases emitted by overheated batteries can build up in cargo containers, leading to explosions capable of disabling aircraft fire suppression systems and allowing the inferno to rage unchecked. As a result of the tests, an organization representing aircraft manufacturers — including the world’s two largest, Boeing and Airbus — said last year that airliners are not designed to withstand lithium battery fires and that continuing to accept battery shipments is “an unacceptable risk.”

Lithium-ion models are more likely than other kinds to short-circuit if they are damaged, exposed to extreme temperatures, overcharged, packed too close together or if they contain manufacturing defects. When they short-circuit, the batteries can experience uncontrolled temperature increases known as “thermal runaway.” That, in turn, can spread short-circuiting to nearby batteries until an entire shipment is overheating and emitting explosive gases.

It is not unusual for tens of thousands of batteries to be shipped in a single cargo container.

Three cargo jets have been destroyed and four pilots killed in in-flight fires since 2006 that accident investigators say were either started by batteries or made more severe by their proximity.

Two serious cases of overheating in lithium-ion batteries took place in January 2013, both on Boeing 787 Dreamliner aircraft.

The first occurred aboard an empty Japan Airlines plane parked in Boston. The second took place on an All Nippon Airways plane over Japan, which made an emergency landing. Regulators grounded all Dreamliners then in operation for more than three months.

The International Federation of Air Line Pilots Associations lobbied the ICAO council unsuccessfully to extend the ban to cargo carriers.

“This has been a long time coming, and is justified by the risk these batteries pose in transportation,” said Mark Rogers of the Air Line Pilots Association in North America. “We now call on ICAO to recognize that the same risk is present on cargo aircraft and to extend the prohibition to all aircraft, until safe methods of transport can be implemented.”

Besides the ban on shipments on passenger planes, the ICAO also approved a requirement that batteries shipped on cargo planes be no more than 30 percent charged. It also imposed new limits on small packages of batteries.