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Lithium Battery Shipments on Passenger Planes Face Ban

March 13th 2015

Boeing 787

Boeing Co has declared that high-density packages of lithium batteries pose fire risks and should not be carried on passenger planes until safer methods for carrying them are developed. Boeing adds another voice to the growing clamour to stop bulk shipments of lithium-ion batteries on passenger aircraft. This week Reuters quoted a Boeing statement as saying that the risk is "continually increasing (and) requires action to be taken".

Boeing is part of an industry group including other plane makers such as Bombardier Inc and Airbus Group NV , that found current firefighting systems on airliners cannot "suppress or extinguish a fire involving significant quantities of lithium batteries" thereby posing an "unacceptable risk" for the industry.

The main firefighting chemical, Halon 1301, is unable to stop fires from rechargeable lithium ion or non-rechargeable lithium metal batteries, the two main types of cells in consumer devices, the industry group said in a report. Boeing also said it agrees with the recommendations in the report by the International Coordinating Council of Aerospace Industry Associations and the International Federation of Air Line Pilots' Associations. The report is due to be considered in April 2015 by a working group of the United Nations International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), a standards setting body.

ICAO said that to take effect, the recommendations would need to be approved by its dangerous goods panel in October 2015, and then by a broader air safety council in 2016. If approved, they would be included in the 2017-2018 edition of ICAO's technical instructions for dangerous goods transport.

The ICCAIA-IFALPA report recommends:

  1. Banning shipments of high-density packages of lithium ion batteries and cells on passenger aircraft until safer transport methods are implemented;
  2. In 2008 the U.S. banned carrying lithium metal batteries as cargo on passenger aircraft, unless they are shipped with or in equipment, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation.
  3. Establishing appropriate packaging and shipping requirements to carry lithium ion batteries as cargo on passenger aircraft;
  4. Establishing appropriate packaging and shipping requirements to carry lithium metal and lithium ion batteries as cargo on freight aircraft.

But lithium ion batteries are allowed as cargo on both passenger and freight aircraft as long as the packages do not exceed 11 pounds (five kilograms), the agency said. In March United Airlines became the second major US airline to announce it will no longer carry bulk shipments of lithium-ion batteries. Delta Airlines stopped bulk shipments of the batteries in February 2015. Tests run by the US-based Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) found overheating batteries could cause major fires.

Lithium-ion batteries are believed to have contributed to the fires that destroyed two Boeing 747 cargo planes, killing all four crew members. The FAA tests involved filling a cargo container with 5,000 lithium-ion batteries and a cartridge heater, which was added to simulate a single battery overheating. The heat from the cartridge triggered a chain reaction in other batteries, with temperatures reaching about 600°C. An explosion followed which blew open the container door and set the cargo box on fire. Further testing produced similar results even though a fire-suppression agent was present.

American Airlines also ceased accepting some types of lithium-ion battery shipments in February 2015.


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