Battery Showdown Pits Boeing Against IPhone Over Airplane Safety

  • 2010 UPS crash, battery fire studies prompt calls for limits
  • UN aviation panel considering new air-cargo standards

The smoke alarm first sounded as the United Parcel Service Inc. jumbo jet neared cruising altitude over the Persian Gulf. Within 2 1/2 minutes, a blaze in the cargo hold grew so hot it distorted steel flight controls, making the plane difficult to fly. Acrid smoke poured into the cockpit, blocking the pilots’ view of instruments.

“I got no oxygen,” Captain Doug Lampe said after the fire burned through his emergency supply line. “I can’t breathe.” Lampe got up from his seat and was almost immediately felled by the fumes. The plane crashed 20 minutes later in a ball of fire near Dubai, killing Lampe and his co-pilot.

Crash investigators, whose report relayed the final moments in the cockpit as captured by the flight recorders, said a load of flammable lithium batteries was at least partly responsible for the 2010 crash of UPS Flight 6.

Yet, five years later, such shipments continue, including on some passenger flights.

Negotiators at the United Nations’ International Civil Aviation Organization in Montreal on Wednesday voted not to ban lithium batteries as cargo on passenger planes, according to two people familiar with the action who weren’t authorized to speak about it. But they continue to debate other restrictions, which could be announced Friday when the meetings adjourn.

Apple, Boeing

Among the restrictions being considered are ones that would require the batteries to be shipped less than fully charged, or changes to the hazardous cargo reporting and packaging requirements.

The discussion pits the rapidly expanding industry that builds power packs to run everything from Apple Inc. iPhones to electrical grids, against giants of the aviation industry, Boeing Co. and Airbus Group SE, which warned passenger carriers in July against carrying lithium-battery cargo shipments until new protections can be developed.

The U.S. Federal Aviation Administration weighed in earlier this month also urging such a ban. But Congress in 2012 passed legislation prohibiting the U.S. government from enacting stricter regulations for lithium cargo than any recommendations set by ICAO.

Accidents, Fires

Shipments of lithium batteries have been linked to two other aircraft accidents in addition to UPS Flight 6, as well as dozens of fire incidents. 

The stakes are huge, according to Christophe Pillot, director of AVICENNE ENERGY a Paris-based consultant. Rapid growth in worldwide shipments of rechargeable lithium-ion batteries -- projected to average 20 percent annually for the next 10 to 15 years -- could be upended if shipments are disrupted by tighter rules, or if a high-profile accident raises public fears, Pillot said. AVICENNE projects rechargeable lithium-ion cell sales will reach almost $16 billion this year.

“The impact on this market will be very important,” he said.

Market Impact

While acknowledging the need for tighter standards, the battery industry has fought halting all air shipments, arguing it would be unnecessary and would harm the sector’s growth, said George Kerchner, executive director of PRBA - The Rechargeable Battery Association.

“We don’t think a ban is the right approach,” Kerchner said. The association favors additional packaging, labeling and training as ways to improve safety.

Pilot unions, meanwhile, say they can’t understand how potentially dangerous shipments are allowed in spite of near-unanimous calls for improved safety by aircraft manufacturers, the FAA and many airlines.

“Unfortunately, with the subject of lithium batteries, we’ve handcuffed our regulators from doing their job,” said Captain Michael Moody, chairman of the safety committee at UPS’s Independent Pilots Association.

Since the 2010 accident, UPS has developed more fire-resistant cargo containers and given its pilots better smoke and fire protections in the cockpit, UPS spokesman Mike Mangeot said in an e-mail. While supporting enhanced packaging standards, the company opposes any ban of battery shipments, he said.

Lithium-ion Loophole

The UPS union and the International Federation of Air Line Pilots’ Associations, an umbrella group for unions around the world, say ICAO’s current recommended standards for limiting the size of battery shipments has a loophole allowing large-scale loads on passenger and cargo flights with little notice or oversight. FAA research released last year found that such shipments were capable of exploding in cargo holds, even with existing fire suppression systems.

“There has been adequate information, adequate testing, enough presented for us to know what the risks are to transportation that these batteries pose,” Mark Rogers, chairman of IFALPA’s dangerous goods committee, said. “Certainly we don’t feel that the current transport regulations are adequate to address that risk.”

While many large passenger carriers, including United Continental Holdings Inc. and Delta Air Lines Inc., said earlier this year they won’t ship the powerpacks as cargo until new safety measures are developed, such shipments are legal and some carriers continue to handle them.

Passenger Carriers

The FAA estimated that 26 million people a year fly to and from the U.S. just on foreign carriers that allow lithium-ion shipments. At least one U.S. passenger carrier also allows the shipments. Alaska Air Group Inc.’s Alaska Airlines accepts lithium-ion shipments on at least some flights, spokeswoman Bobbie Egan said in an e-mail.

Representative Peter DeFazio, the Oregon Democrat who is his party’s highest ranking member of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, said it is “unconscionable” that the U.S. must accept ICAO’s standards and can’t set its own safety rules. He hopes to strike restrictions on lithium-battery regulations from an FAA policy bill scheduled to be taken up early next year.

Other Limits

In addition to banning lithium shipments, ICAO this week is debating several proposals. In one, batteries couldn’t be shipped with more than 30 percent of a full charge, which would reduce the chances of overheating and fire. Battery manufacturers agree that some limit would make sense, but want the flexibility to ship batteries with a higher charge, Kerchner said.

Negotiators are also looking at ways to close a loophole in earlier ICAO battery packaging requirements. Under 2012 ICAO policy, only the smallest packages are allowed to be shipped on aircraft without being identified as hazardous waste and receiving special care. However, unlimited amounts of those small packages can be shipped together, effectively sidestepping the protections, according to Rogers.

The organization can adopt one or more of the proposals or craft separate recommendations. While most nations adopt ICAO’s standards, countries aren’t bound by the United Nations to do so.

Made in Asia

Most lithium-based batteries are made in Asia and shipped to the rest of the world, AVICENNE’s Pillot said. That means a portion of the industry relies on the rapid delivery provided by aircraft, making that form of transportation critical, he said. 

Companies such as Panasonic Corp., Samsung Electronics Co. and LG Electronics Inc. are among the largest manufacturers of rechargeable lithium cells, reflecting their use in electronics, according to AVICENNE.

Newer areas of battery growth are in vehicles, ranging from electric bikes to buses, and as storage devices for electricity in homes. Tesla Motors Inc., which is building a battery-production facility in Nevada, is expanding from electric cars to batteries for homes.

Even as the batteries have spurred economic growth, safety risks have remained. Not only are they made with flammable materials, but they hold so much energy that they can self-ignite if they fail or are damaged.

U.S. Ban

Shipments of non-rechargeable lithium cells were banned as cargo on passenger flights by the U.S. in 2007 after research showed they couldn’t be extinguished by on-board fire suppression. Non-rechargeable cells use different chemistry than lithium-ion rechargeable batteries.

However, the more agencies like the FAA researched lithium-ion cells, the more concerned they became. While lithium-ion fires are easier to put out, the cells give off gases that can explode in some cases. An explosion in a cargo bin would compromise normal fire protections and might even damage the aircraft, according to the FAA.

After UPS Flight 6 went down, investigators found the Boeing 747-400 had held more than 81,000 lithium cells, some of which weren’t properly declared, according to the General Civil Aviation Authority of the United Arab Emirates.

The fire originated in cargo containing “a significant number of lithium type batteries and other combustible materials,” the agency’s report concluded.

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