Air Panel Recommends Battery Cargo Be Restricted, Not Banned

  • Pilot union calls failure to ban shipments `unacceptable'
  • Panel calls for more disclosure and better packaging

A United Nations aviation panel has voted to require tighter standards for shipments of lithium-based batteries on airplanes, even while it rejected calls for a broader ban.

A committee of the UN’s International Civil Aviation Organization in Montreal took a preliminary step to ensure batteries are shipped with lower charge levels and that they are identified and packaged properly, the U.S. Air Line Pilots Association union said in an e-mailed statement Friday.

The action was “unacceptable,” union President Tim Canoll said in the statement, because previous fires have taken down planes.

“Until ICAO develops improved packaging regulations for the shipment of lithium batteries by air that guarantee that lithium battery fires will not spread, an interim ban on shipping them on all aircraft is essential to safeguarding air transportation,” Canoll said.

The ICAO Council will make a final policy decision on the recommendation of the dangerous goods panel that voted Friday. While most nations follow ICAO standards, they are not binding.

ICAO didn’t respond to a request for comment. The pilots association participated in the debate in Montreal.

While lithium power packs have fueled everything from Apple Inc. iPhones to electrical grids, and sales are growing rapidly, research has shown they can self-ignite, are highly flammable and can explode in some instances.

Boeing, Airbus

The ICAO debate pitted the electronics and energy industry 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.

The action is significant for U.S. aviation because its regulators were forbidden by Congress from enacting any rules on lithium batteries that are stricter than ICAO’s standards.

Battery industry groups such as PRBA-The Rechargeable Battery Association have argued that a ban on shipments wasn’t necessary if other safety steps were taken.

Three aircraft accidents in the past 10 years, two of which were fatal, have been linked to lithium batteries. On Sept. 3, 2010, a United Parcel Service Inc. plane crashed near Dubai after a fire erupted in an area carrying batteries, according to the General Civil Aviation Authority of the United Arab Emirates.

The Independent Pilots Association, which represents pilots from UPS, criticized the UN’s action for failing to address cargo-only airlines. Air cargo haulers can carry more volatile, non-rechargeable lithium batteries, which have been banned on passenger flights.

“Cargo pilots’ lives matter,” Captain Michael Moody, chairman of the union’s safety committee, said in an e-mail. “They deserve and expect the same level of safety as a passenger pilot.”

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal. LEARN MORE