U.S. air-safety regulators, accident investigators and pilot-union leaders are renewing their warnings regarding the hazards of shipping lithium batteries as air cargo. There’s a growing consensus that packaging and stowage safeguards for such bulk shipments are inadequate—requiring major changes in how the power cells are transported in cargo and passenger planes. In fact, there are even calls for the international community to employ a mandatory ban on any lithium battery shipments on passenger aircrafts.

In September test results by the Federal Aviation Association (FAA) found that transporting lithium batteries in the bellies of commercial jets is more hazardous than previously recognized. The results showed a handful of burning power cells can overwhelm typical onboard cargo safety and fire-suppression systems. Now independently conducted tests, according to an article in the Wall Street Journal (WSJ), underscore the FAA’s test findings and show modern jetliner designs can’t cope with the intense heat and explosions that can result when relatively few lithium batteries overheat.

The FAA, according to a recent Wall Street Journal article, “strongly supports” earlier recommendations by plane makers and expert international panels for airlines to perform detailed risk assessments before accepting any shipments of lithium batteries. Before transporting rechargeable lithium batteries, according to the FAA, carriers should evaluate the frequency and quantities of such shipments; proximity of batteries to other dangerous goods; and accessibility of these batteries to the crew in case of a fire.

The International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), an arm of the United Nations, is also considering various steps to tighten shipping standards after a panel of international safety experts recommended it ban all shipments of rechargeable lithium batteries from cargo holds of passenger airliners. But there is pushback on a mandated ban. For example, trade association PRBA (Portable Rechargeable Battery Association) said it was “very disappointed” with the decision to consider banning lithium batters on passenger plans. The safety panel, according to the association, seemed to ignore “recent efforts to address the safe transport of lithium-ion batteries through more stringent packaging” and proposed internal charge limits. Furthermore, the association said “the ban will raise serious questions about the ability of medical device manufacturers to ship lifesaving batteries needed by patients, doctors, nurses and hospitals in remote areas.”

Yet safety experts and pilot representatives want a mandatory ban on any lithium battery shipments on passenger aircraft. In fact, the Air Line Pilots Association (ALPA) mid-February called on U.S. lawmakers to reject proposed legislative language effectively permitting continued “shipment of unlimited quantities of lithium batteries on passenger and cargo aircraft.” ALPA said the U.S. “should set the example and lead international efforts” to prevent lithium-battery fires.

The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) has also urged tighter standards for the way in which cargo airlines carry bulk lithium battery shipments. The NTSB called for strict limits on the number of batteries placed in individual shipping containers or on pallets. It’s also urging separating such packages from other dangerous goods on board.

Ground Transport for Lithium Batteries

Last August, the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) passed new regulations requiring shippers that moved lithium batteries by ground to meet specific package marking and hazard communication documentation standards. Packages containing fewer than 24 cells or fewer than 12 batteries must have a hazard mark or special documentation when being shipped by ground in the same way they have been prepared for air shipment. In the past, shipments of up to 12 “small” batteries (or 24 cells) were exempt from these regulations. Most lithium batteries are now considered as Class 9 hazardous materials when transported by ground transportation, which makes them more closely aligned with the IATA Dangerous Goods Regulations.

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Sources: WSJ, FAA