Interim Ban Placed on Lithium-Ion-Battery Cargo Shipments on Passenger Planes
U.N. aviation arm said ban will remain in force at least until sometime in 2018
The International Civil Aviation Organization’s announcement Monday, which caught even some proponents by surprise, means that starting in April passenger carriers world-wide will be effectively barred from carrying such cargo.
Many large airlines already have voluntarily made the move, but the agency’s action ensures that national regulators will now enforce the prohibition across the board. The decision by ICAO’s 36-member council, the Montreal-based agency’s top policy group, also is expected boost ongoing efforts to further restrict bulk shipments of lithium-ion batteries by cargo carriers.
ICAO said the interim ban will remain in force at least until sometime in 2018, by which time the U.N. agency expects to adopt tough new packaging standards intended to reduce the risks of fires or explosions caused by the power cells.
Similar to earlier moves by U.S. regulators to ban certain types of lithium batteries as cargo from passenger aircraft, Monday’s decision won’t have any impact on batteries, or on portable electronic devices containing power cells, carried on board by passengers.
Laboratory tests have shown that modern jetliner designs can’t cope with the intense heat and explosions that can result when relatively few lithium batteries overheat. Such fires can occur when lithium batteries are packed tightly together, and they can overheat or experience short circuits if they are damaged.
In a brief statement announcing the decision, Olumuyiwa Benard Aliu, president of the council, said “safety is always our most fundamental priority.”
The council also approved an internal charge limit of 30% for each battery in shipments carried on cargo planes.
The ban was strongly supported by leaders of pilot unions around the globe, as well as by the four largest manufacturers of commercial aircraft. At least three other ICAO committees or agency standards-setting groups previously urged enhanced protections against lithium-battery dangers. And barely two weeks ago, the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration issued a bluntly worded safety alert indicating that typical fire-suppression systems on jetliners using halon gas are “incapable of preventing” explosions caused by lithium batteries.
Still, some industry and ICAO officials earlier this month said the outcome of the agency’s latest internal deliberations on lithium-ion cargo shipments remained uncertain.
Over the years, battery makers strongly resisted beefed-up rules and maintained the dangers were overblown by industry critics. More recently, however, the main trade group has shown a greater willingness to compromise.
Late Monday, PRBA—The Rechargeable Battery Association, said the decision was expected and “our members are preparing to comply with these new regulations even with the extremely tight deadline.” But the association warned about “significant disruption in the logistics supply chain,” especially for batteries powering medical devices often shipped to remote locations on passenger airliners.
The industry group also said ICAO failed to factor in recent test data showing that limits on the internal charge of batteries would eliminate concerns about release of flammable gases.
Safety experts and pilot representatives favor tough new packaging rules combined with a reduction in the internal charge of each battery. Last year, the leading rechargeable-battery trade association agreed to the broad outlines of significantly tighter fire-retardant packaging standards for airborne shipments of such power cells world-wide, including reducing the extent of internal charge.
But after losing several rounds at ICAO, battery manufacturers recently shifted their focus to urge Congress to avoid getting ahead of the U.N. agency in implementing any such regulations.
Lithium batteries are suspected of contributing to fires that have brought down or badly damaged three large cargo aircraft over the years. In urging new safeguards on all-cargo planes, the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board earlier this month concluded that the January 2011 crash of a Asiana Airlines 020560 0.11 % cargo jet revealed “credible evidence” of substandard standards covering lithium-battery shipments. The Boeing Co. BA 0.21 % 747 broke apart and crashed within 17 minutes of the pilots reporting a cargo-deck fire.