Battery-Fire Crashes Seen Every Other Year as U.S. Rules Fought

Battery-Fire Crashes Seen Every Other Year
A United Parcel Service Inc. Boeing DC-8 that was destroyed by fire on Feb. 7, 2006, in Philadelphia contained “numerous” lithium batteries in computers and other devices, a National Transportation Safety Board investigation found. Photographer: Jerome Favre/Bloomberg

Batteries used in mobile phones and laptop computers, which can spontaneously combust, will destroy an average of one U.S.-registered cargo jet every other year, a government analysis has concluded.

Shipments of lithium batteries have been suspected of contributing to two U.S. cargo-jet accidents since 2006. They aren’t treated as hazardous, and the U.S. Congress is debating whether to exempt them from stricter rules. Projected growth in battery production increases the odds of fires, the study by U.S., Canadian and U.K. researchers found.

“It’s like a fireworks display,” Jerry Back, senior fire protection engineer at Hughes Associates Inc. in Baltimore, said about burning batteries in an interview. The firm conducts fire research for government and private clients.

“They explode,” Back said. “They shoot fireballs. They emit smoke. Sometimes they spray flaming liquid.”

The study, commissioned in part by the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration, was released as government investigators are trying to determine why the lithium battery on a General Motors Co. Chevrolet Volt car caught fire following a crash test in May.

The U.S. Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration in January 2010 proposed stricter rules for handling airborne battery shipments. The rules remain under review at the U.S. Department of Transportation.

The Republican-controlled House earlier this year voted to block the rules. The Democratic-controlled Senate hasn’t acted on the measure.

Costs Disputed

Manufacturers including Apple Inc. and Panasonic Corp. say additional regulation would cost them $1.1 billion a year and isn’t warranted, according to PRBA-The Rechargeable Battery Association, a Washington-based trade association. The hazardous materials administration estimated the cost of its rule at $70.2 million over 10 years.

“We have to take seriously this risk and we have to take seriously the way in which we package and transport these materials,” Lee Collins, executive vice president of the Coalition of Airline Pilots Associations, a Washington-based group representing five pilot unions, said in an interview.

The crash-risk analysis, which was posted on the FAA’s website in September without publicity, highlights the dangers of some types of lithium batteries as cargo on passenger planes, Russ Leighton, safety coordinator for the Teamsters Airline Division, said in an interview. The Teamsters represent pilots at Atlas Air Worldwide Holdings’ Atlas Air Inc. and ABX Air Inc.

Passenger Plane Incidents

Rechargeable lithium batteries can be carried as cargo in passenger planes.

Non-rechargeable lithium batteries, which are made differently and resist halon extinguishers, were banned as cargo in passenger planes in 2004. That type of battery is used in hearing aids, garage-door openers and small electronic devices.

Since then, there have been 17 reported fire incidents with lithium batteries of both types on passenger planes, all but one involving passengers who carried the batteries or packed them in luggage, according to the FAA.

The agency in 2008 barred passengers from carrying spare lithium batteries in checked luggage. Last year it recommended to passenger airlines that battery shipments be placed in areas with fire-suppression systems.

Philadelphia, Dubai

A United Parcel Service Inc. Boeing DC-8 that was destroyed by fire on Feb. 7, 2006, in Philadelphia contained “numerous” lithium batteries in computers and other devices, a National Transportation Safety Board investigation found. The three crew members escaped as flames engulfed the jet shortly after landing.

The safety board said it couldn’t identify the cause of the fire. The investigation focused on batteries.

On Sept. 3, 2010, fire broke out on a UPS Boeing 747-400 jetliner 22 minutes after it left Dubai. The plane, which crashed at a military base, was carrying more than 81,000 lithium batteries, according to a report by the General Civil Aviation Authority of the United Arab Emirates. Both pilots died.

Lithium batteries burn so hot that if one in a shipment catches fire it will ignite the others, research at the FAA’s fire safety branch in Atlantic City, New Jersey, has shown.

Both types of lithium batteries will continue burning after being blanketed by halon fire-suppression systems, according to the FAA research. The halon can prevent fires involving rechargeable batteries from spreading to adjacent cargo. It can’t stop the spread of non-rechargeable battery fires, according to the research.

UPS Challenges Findings

UPS disputes the study’s prediction of more accidents, because there’s no proof the fires on its jets started in batteries, Mike Mangeot, a UPS spokesman, said in an e-mailed statement. More research must be done before adopting stricter rules, Mangeot said.

The rechargeable battery association agrees, George Kerchner, its executive director, said in an interview. The group represents Apple, Panasonic and tool-maker Stanley Black & Decker Inc.

The group opposes the hazardous materials administration’s proposal to require better testing of battery safety and improved packaging to prevent short-circuiting.

The House provision, approved as part of a bill setting policy guidelines for the FAA, prohibits any rules stricter than those set by the United Nations. House and Senate negotiators haven’t yet reached agreement on the FAA bill.

Shippers Blamed

In a June 17 letter to Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, airlines, battery manufacturers and electronics firms urged officials to strictly enforce the UN guidelines on safe manufacturing and testing of batteries.

“The failure of some shippers to comply with these requirements has been the root cause of virtually all of reported air cargo transport incidents,” the letter said.

The letter was written by Kerchner’s group and others including Airlines for America, the Washington trade group representing the largest U.S. carriers; the Consumer Electronics Association, the Arlington, Virginia-based association whose members include Apple and Microsoft Corp.; and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the largest U.S. business-advocacy group.

Production of lithium-battery cells grew from 625 million in 2000 to 4.4 billion in 2010, according to the study, which was completed in September.

The total is expected to almost double by 2020, reaching about 8 billion, it said. About half of lithium batteries are shipped on U.S. aircraft, the report said.

‘Time Bomb’

As a result of that growth, statistical models predicted that there would be 4.5 accidents due to lithium-battery fires from 2011 to 2020, the report said.

Battery-related accidents are projected to cost $395 million during the decade, the study said.

The report was commissioned by the FAA, Transport Canada and England’s Civil Aviation Authority after last year’s Dubai crash. It says that lithium batteries “likely contributed” to that incident and the one in Philadelphia in 2006.

The study projected accidents only for U.S. cargo carriers. An Asiana Airlines Inc. cargo 747-400 flying from Seoul to Shanghai crashed into the East China Sea on Sept. 28 after the crew reported a fire on board. The jet’s cargo included lithium batteries, according to South Korea’s Ministry of Land, Transport and Maritime Affairs.

The report shows the need for stronger regulations and enforcement on battery labeling and handling, Leighton said.

“You kind of have this time bomb waiting to go off,” Leighton said.

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