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UN panel proposes air ban on 'fire danger' batteries

Published 28/01/2016

An FAA test shows what happened when a cargo container was packed with 5,000 rechargeable lithium-ion batteries (FAA/AP)
An FAA test shows what happened when a cargo container was packed with 5,000 rechargeable lithium-ion batteries (FAA/AP)

A United Nations panel has recommended that cargo shipments of rechargeable lithium batteries should be banned from passenger airliners because they can create fires capable of destroying planes.

But aviation sources familiar with the decision said the International Civilian Aviation Organisation's air navigation commission, the agency's highest technical body, said the ban should be lifted if new, safer, packaging could be developed.

Final approval from the ICAO top-level council, which is due to take up the matter in late February, is still needed. The aviation sources said they could not predict whether the council, which has 36 members, would ultimately agree to a ban.

Lithium-ion batteries are used to power everything from mobile phones and laptops to hybrid and all-electric cars. About 5.4 billion lithium-ion cells were manufactured worldwide in 2014. A battery is made up of two or more cells.

Most batteries are transported on cargo ships, but about 30% are shipped by air.

Tests by America's Federal Aviation Administration show a single damaged or defective battery can experience uncontrolled temperature increases known as thermal runaway and the overheating can spread throughout a shipment.

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

In FAA tests, the overheating batteries have released explosive gases that, when ignited, have blown the doors off cargo containers and sent boxes of batteries flying through the air before becoming engulfed in flames.

Engineers from the FAA's technical centre told a public meeting last year that the explosions were forceful enough to knock the interior panels off cargo compartment walls. That would allow halon, the fire suppression agent used in airliners, to escape, leaving nothing to prevent fires from spreading unchecked, they said.

Aviation safety experts believe at least three cargo planes have been destroyed by lithium battery fires since 2006. Four pilots died in those accidents.

The proposed ban does not apply to cargo planes despite efforts by the International Federation of Air Line Pilot Associations to include cargo operations.

An organisation that represents aircraft manufacturers - including the world's two largest, Boeing and Airbus - submitted a position paper to ICAO last March stating that airliners were not designed to withstand lithium battery fires and that continuing to accept battery shipments was "an unacceptable risk".

Six months later the US decided to back a ban. "We believe the risk is immediate and urgent," Angela Stubblefield, a Federal Aviation Administration hazardous materials safety official, told a public meeting on October 8.

Proponents of a ban say any battery can experience thermal runaway if it has even a slight defect, is subject to extreme temperatures like when being left on a hot runway in the sun, or is damaged when a package is dropped or knocked about.

In late October, an ICAO panel on the transport of dangerous goods voted 11-7 against a ban. The United States, Russia, Brazil, China and Spain, as well as organisations representing airline pilots and aircraft manufacturers, voted in favour of the ban.

The Netherlands, Canada, France, Germany, Australia, Italy, United Arab Emirates, South Korea, Japan and the United Kingdom, as well as the airline trade group, voted against it.

However, in early December another ICAO panel on aircraft safety voted to recommend a ban. With two different panel recommendations, ICAO council members representing Brazil, the US and Russia requested earlier this month that a navigation commission, which is a step above the panels, craft a recommendation on a ban.

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