Batteries for 787 Can’t Be Shipped on Passenger Planes

Lithium-ion batteries like those under investigation in the grounding of Boeing Co.’s 787 Dreamliner shouldn’t be shipped aboard passenger planes, a United Nations aviation agency ruled today.

The International Civil Aviation Organization’s action resulted from probes into 787 batteries that smoked and charred last month in Boston and Japan, Anthony Philbin, a spokesman for the agency in Montreal, said in an interview.

The action reverses an exemption in ICAO rules that had allowed airlines to ship the 787’s lithium-ion batteries as cargo on passenger flights, Philbin said. The exemption was designed to make it easier for airlines that fly the 787, such as United Continental Holdings Inc., to send replacement batteries to maintenance facilities.

ICAO on Jan. 1 imposed tougher new general guidelines on how lithium-based batteries such as those used in laptop computers can be shipped on passenger and cargo aircraft because they can spontaneously ignite. It required labeling the batteries as hazardous and training airline employees who handle the shipments. It also barred large shipments of batteries aboard passenger planes.

The exemption had made it possible to ship lithium-ion batteries as large as 77 pounds (35 kilograms) on passenger flights, according to the ICAO provisions. It applied only to batteries designed specifically for aircraft.

The only aircraft model on the market using lithium batteries that are covered under the exemption is the 787. Today’s action is temporary pending the outcome of the investigations, Philbin said.

Airplane Grounded

Shipments of 787 batteries required by the current investigations have been made on cargo aircraft, which is permitted under ICAO guidelines, Marc Birtel, a Boeing spokesman, said in an e-mail.

The 787 was grounded by the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration Jan. 16 after an All Nippon Airways Co. plane made an emergency landing in Japan because one of its two lithium-ion batteries was smoking.

The U.S. National Transportation Safety Board is investigating a fire Jan. 7 aboard a Japan Airlines Co. plane’s battery that burned after landing in Boston. Investigators have identified a short-circuit in one of the battery cells as the origin of the fire, NTSB Chairman Debbie Hersman said in a Feb. 7 press conference.

The ICAO lithium regulations don’t apply in the U.S. because the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration said in a Jan. 7 filing that it was considering exempting the nation’s carriers.

(Corrects weight limit in fifth paragraph of story published Feb. 12.)
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