Boeing: Li-ion battery shipments on passenger flights pose fire hazard
The warning is likely to trigger tougher international packaging standards for all such cargo. In the past, Boeing provided similar guidance to airlines, but only if they specifically requested technical advice, and it signed an industry-wide technical paper highlighting that design standards for airlines hadn’t contemplated the high temperatures and explosive gases that can result when thousands of lithium batteries erupt in what is called a ‘thermal runaway.’
Boeing’s latest warning goes further because it was unsolicited and amounts to a formal recommendation that is likely to be followed by virtually all customers.
Conventional fire-retardant chemicals on planes are not able to put out some of the lithium battery fires, according tests conducted by the US Federal Aviation Administration. Most other kinds of batteries have not been shown to explode or burn at such high temperatures
Dozens of airlines, including Delta Air Lines, British Airways, Cathay Pacific, Singapore Airlines and Air France, have already voluntarily stopped putting bulk lithium batteries in the cargo holds of their passenger planes. Some carriers have stopped accepting cargo shipments of large numbers of lithium batteries altogether.
As of July 1 2015 as many as 28 carriers had imposed permanent or temporary bans on bulk shipments of lithium batteries as cargo on passenger planes, according to data assembled by the International Air Transport Association, the leading global airline trade group.
In addition, Airbus Group SE and a United Nations-backed panel of global safety experts also are on record about potentially catastrophic fire and explosion risks from rechargeable and non-rechargeable lithium batteries, which can reach temperatures hot enough to melt aluminum.
Boeing’s formal warning indicates that the company may be willing to join the growing chorus of pilot unions, airlines and other industry players calling for a reassessment of how lithium batteries are transported as cargo on all types of commercial aircraft.
An international team of safety experts assembled by the aviation arm of the United Nations later in July is scheduled to debate sweeping changes in packaging and other safeguards affecting a fast-growing global industry that annually churns out billions of cells and generates an estimated $12 billion in revenue from rechargeable batteries alone.
In addition to tougher, more-fire resistant packaging, the expert panel has considered further reductions in the electrical charge inside rechargeable lithium-ion batteries slated for airborne shipments, which is one more way to reduce flammability and possible explosions.
Within hours of Boeing’s message warning George Kerchner, executive director of the Rechargeable Battery Association (PRBA), released a statement saying: "The Rechargeable Battery Association shares Boeing’s goal of improving the safe transport of bulk shipments of lithium ion batteries by air. We look forward to continuing our engagement with Boeing and other aircraft manufacturers, the airline industry and regulators" at the experts meeting in late July "to discuss battery transportation issues, specifically a new and unprecedented lithium ion battery standard and packaging criteria."
"We also have supported International Civil Aviation Organization’s recent regulatory initiatives on lithium batteries, including new stringent packaging and labelling requirements. Billions of lithium ion batteries have been shipped safely by all modes of transportation over the last 25 years. PRBA is not aware of a single incident involving the transport by air of a fully compliant shipment of lithium ion batteries".
"PRBA also remains concerned that certification of aircraft fail to consider the unique hazards associated with the carriage of any dangerous goods, not just those associated with lithium batteries".
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