UN aviation panel rejects ban on air shipments of fire-prone batteries

A UN aviation panel has rejected a ban on rechargeable battery shipments on passenger airliners despite evidence they can cause explosions and unstoppable in-flight fires.

This frame grab from a video, provided by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), shows a battery test at the FAA's technical center in Atlantic City, New Jersey.  FAA via AP Photo
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WASHINGTON // A UN aviation panel has rejected a ban on rechargeable battery shipments on passenger airliners despite evidence they can cause explosions and unstoppable, in-flight fires, aviation officials said.

The International Civil Aviation Organisation panel on dangerous goods voted 10-7 Wednesday against a ban, said officials who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorised to speak about the vote publicly.

The panel’s decision is a recommendation to ICAO’s air navigation bureau. It would be unusual for the bureau not to follow the recommendation.

The United States, Russia, Brazil, China and Spain, as well as organisations representing airline pilots and aircraft manufacturers, voted in favour of the ban during the meeting at ICAO’s headquarters in Montreal. The Netherlands, Canada, France, Australia, Italy, the UAE, South Korea, Japan and the UK, as well as the International Air Transport Association, voted against it.

One official said Germany also voted against the ban, but that could not be confirmed.

Billions of the lithium-ion batteries are used to power consumer electronics, ranging from mobile phones and laptops to power tools and toothbrushes. Tens of thousands of the batteries are often shipped on a single plane.

US Federal Aviation Administration tests show small quantities of overheated lithium-ion batteries can cause explosions that can disable aircraft fire protection systems. The explosions knock panels off the interior walls of cargo compartments, allowing halon gas — the fire suppression system used in airliners — to escape and dissipate. With no halon, a fire could rage unchecked and lead to the destruction of the plane.

The aviation organisation, also called ICAO, is the United Nations agency that sets international aviation standards. It’s up to each country to decide whether to follow the standards, but most do.

The battery industry and companies that rely on battery shipments have long said that the problem should be addressed by cracking down on shady battery makers who do not use proper shipping procedures. Battery industry officials contacted by the Associated Press declined to comment.

The panel did agree that the number of batteries that can be shipped without requiring the shipper to inform the airline that the shipment contains batteries should be severely limited. Currently, shippers can bundle as many small packages of batteries as they like into a single, larger container.

However, change would not prevent unlimited quantities of batteries from being shipped on a single plane if they are declared to the airline and other regulations are followed.

The panel also agreed that batteries offered for shipment should be only 30 per cent charged. The lower the charge, the lower the likelihood of a fire.

ICAO sent an alert to airlines this summer urging that they conduct risk assessments on how to safely handle the shipments.

Opponents of the ban argued that the decision on whether to accept battery shipments should be left up to airlines, the officials said. As the result of the US testing, nearly 30 airlines around the world say they no longer accept bulk battery shipments as cargo, but many other airlines continue to accept the shipments.

However, supporters of the ban pointed out that airlines may have trouble accurately assessing the risk posed by battery shipments if they do not know how many batteries they will have on board. The changes approved by the panel do not limit how many undeclared, small battery packages can be shipped on a single plane, only how many can be packed together into a single shipment.

The FAA tests have raised alarms in aviation circles worldwide about the battery shipments for at least the last two years. But confirmation that only a small quantity of overheating, or short-circuiting, batteries can create an explosion that allows halon to escape was only recently disclosed. Unlike other types of batteries, lithium batteries are more likely to experience short-circuiting if damaged, defective, overcharged or undercharged, or exposed to extreme temperatures. The short-circuiting leads to thermal runaway, a condition of continually escalating temperatures that can cause a fire.

Halon is capable of suppressing flames from a battery, but is not able to stop the short-circuiting, the FAA tests show. With the flames suppressed, the overheating batteries emit explosive gases, including hydrogen, that can build up inside a shipping container. Once an explosion dislodges the cargo compartment panels and the halon escapes, there is nothing left to suppress flames.

Earlier this year, the International Coordinating Council of Aerospace Industries Associations, led by aircraft makers Boeing and Airbus, urged a ban on bulk battery shipments on passenger airliners, saying that continuing to permit the shipments is “an unacceptable risk”. Airliners are not designed to withstand the intense fires the batteries are capable of creating, the council said.

Despite the extensive testing, it was not until earlier this month that the US government said publicly for the first time that the battery shipments are too dangerous to be allowed on passenger planes and that it would back a ban proposed by the pilots association.

“We believe the risk is immediate and urgent,” Angela Stubblefield, a Federal Aviation Administration hazardous materials safety official, said at a Department of Transportation meeting on October 8.

Airlines flying to and from the US that accept lithium battery shipments carry 26 million passengers a year, she said.

* Associated Press