By Andy Pasztor
International air-safety experts this week will consider proposals to restrict lithium batteries carried as cargo by commercial jets, a sign that momentum is building for a ban on some of the most common types of shipments.
Meeting in Montreal under the auspices of the United Nations, more than two dozen industry and government experts are set to debate options including temporarily keeping bulk shipments of rechargeable lithium-ion batteries off of all passenger aircraft until enhanced packaging requirements and other protections are in place.
Lithium batteries, packed tightly together, can overheat or catch fire if they are damaged or experience short circuits. They have been implicated in intense, quickly spreading fires that brought down two jumbo freighters--and ravaged another big cargo jet on the ground--during the past nine years.
Unlike earlier meetings of the same group of experts, this time Boeing Co., Airbus Group NV and other plane makers in principle support such a suspension, amounting to a major tightening of current global shipping standards developed by the International Civil Aviation Organization, a U.N. agency.
Other pending proposals are less restrictive, though they still could end up imposing procedural changes and enhanced safeguards on a fast-growing global battery industry that churns out billions of cells annually and generates an estimated $12 billion in revenue from rechargeable batteries alone.
The outcome of this week's deliberations, though, is uncertain, according to participants and observers familiar with the details.
Industry representatives are split in their positions and it isn't clear how far the advisory panel is willing to go to crack down on such airborne cargo.
But outside pressures have changed since last year, when ICAO took the unprecedented step of prohibiting lithium-metal batteries from being carried as cargo by any passenger jet. Such batteries carry a one-time charge and are often used in toys and cameras.
Now, plane makers are focused on possibly suspending passenger jets from accepting certain bulk shipments of rechargeable lithium-ion batteries--ubiquitous power sources found in cellphones, laptops and myriad other consumer electronics.
The manufacturers have joined pilot union leaders in arguing that existing jetliners weren't designed or built to withstand the high temperatures or explosive gases that also can result from fires involving lithium-ion power cells.
Recent Federal Aviation Administration laboratory tests--which haven't yet been publicly released--indicate that lithium battery blazes are more prone to end in hazardous explosions or to reignite than scientists previously believed, according to one person briefed on the details.
In their latest submission, an umbrella group representing aircraft makers told ICAO that current cargo fire-protection systems "are unable to suppress or extinguish a fire involving significant quantities of lithium batteries." As a result, flying such batteries as cargo poses "an unacceptable risk to the air transport industry," according to the paper submitted by the International Coordination Council for Aerospace Industry Association.
The association advocates "immediate action" to reduce risks, by temporarily halting all cargo shipments of "high-density packages of lithium-ion batteries and cells" on passenger jets until "safer methods of transport are established and followed."
The "tide is definitely turning, since we have these recommendations from the manufacturers," according to another participant in the upcoming session. But so far, this person emphasized, there is no consensus on many big-ticket items.
Still unresolved are sweeping recommendations from last fall including proposals to insert gels or other types of cooling agents between batteries or power packs, as a way to prevent rapid spread of heat and flames.
A recent position paper submitted to ICAO by the Rechargeable Battery Association, a leading industry trade group, opposes proposals to sharply reduce the level of electrical charge inside lithium-ion batteries slated for airborne shipments. That would be one more way to reduce flammability and seek to prevent explosions.
The battery group, among other things, objected to shipping batteries with as little as 30% of maximum charge, arguing that 55% or so was necessary to avoid potential technical problems, ensure adequate shelf life and meet customer demands.
Battery experts estimate more than 5 billion lithium-ion cells were produced globally in 2014, with original manufacturers likely shipping at least 550 million of them by air. The battery association's technical paper also asserted that the FAA's tests aren't relevant to gauge real-world battery behavior.
But in a conciliatory section, the association said that since ICAO decisions "could have a profound and long-term impact on lithium-ion cell and battery manufacturers," affected companies "would welcome the opportunity to work with" the agency and plane makers to find solutions.
This week's meeting comes as prominent airlines world-wide increasingly are embracing voluntary restrictions on lithium battery cargo shipments. United Continental Holdings Inc., Delta Air Lines Inc., Qantas Airways Ltd. and Air France-KLM are among the carriers that have stopped putting any lithium batteries in cargo holds of their passenger planes. Earlier this month, Hong Kong-based Cathay Pacific Airways Ltd., a major transporter of lithium batteries coming from Chinese factories, decided to stop such shipments on all of its planes.
Other issues slated to be considered at the meeting include the maximum number of loose lithium batteries that can packaged together under today's standards; and whether smaller, so-called button batteries, often used for medical and other specialty devices, should be exempt from general shipping restrictions.
The working group also plans to reassess ICAO's guidance to help cabin crews react to smoldering or dangerously overheating batteries inside electronic devices passengers bring into the cabin. Up to now, experts have advised flight attendants to avoid moving such items until they are doused in water and completely cool down. But proponents of some recent studies and new fire-suppression technologies are urging international and national regulators to allow burning devices to be placed inside specially designed protective sleeves as soon as a problem is discovered.
Write to Andy Pasztor at email@example.com
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