Tuesday, 16 February 2016

To ban or not to ban? Regulators attempt to mitigate risks from air carriage of lithium batteries

ICAO and regulators worldwide are examining methods to mitigate the risk posed by air carriage of lithium batteries. The crashes of two freighters in 2010 and 2011, and the grounding of Boeing 787s in 2013, all connected with lithium batteries on board, in combination with recent FAA studies, have sparked an intense debate on the conditions under which lithium batteries should be (not) allowed on board aircraft.

On 3 September 2010, UPS flight 6 from Dubai to Cologne-Bonn airport developed an in-flight fire. The pilots reported that the aircraft, a Boeing 747-44AF, including the cockpit was full of smoke. A diversion of the flight for emergency landing in Dubai was attempted, yet the aircraft crashed about 30 minutes later. The accident investigation report concluded that the fire that caused the crash began from autoignition of the contents of a cargo pallet, which contained lithium batteries and other combustible materials.

On 28 July 2011 Asiana cargo flight 991 from Seoul to Shanghai crashed into the ocean shortly after the crew reported a fire in the cargo compartment and attempted to divert the fight for an emergency landing. The aircraft, a Boeing 747-48EF freighter, was carrying also lithium-ion batteries and flammable liquids, from which a fire developed, which caused the accident.

In 2013, all Boeing 787 worldwide were temporarily grounded after two incidents involving fire during the flight were connected to the aircraft’s two lithium-ion batteries.

Tests conducted by the FAA in 2014 and 2015 showed that ignition of unburned flammable gases associated with a lithium-battery fire may lead to a catastrophic explosion, which could not be prevented by current fire suppression systems on board cargo compartments of aircraft. In addition, tests also revealed that the ignition of a mixture of flammable gases could produce an over-pressure, which could result in the leakage of smoke and gases from the cargo department into the occupied areas of the aircraft. The number of cells necessary to produce this condition is small and can occur with just a few packages. In general, the  carriage  of  lithium  cells  and  batteries  in  aircraft  cargo  compartments  presents  three distinct hazards: (1) they can cause fire, (2) they can fuel an existing fire, (3) they can produce an explosive mixture of gas.

Airbus and Boeing have recommended that operators conduct safety risk assessments before deciding to transport lithium batteries as cargo.

The European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) has recommended that operators, before engaging in the transport of lithium batteries/cells as cargo in passenger or freighter aircraft, conduct a safety risk assessment in order to establish whether the risk is manageable. The US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) supports these recommendations and encourages operators who have previously performed a risk assessment to reevaluate their assessment in light of the further evidence gained through the recent testing of lithium batteries. The US National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) issued two safety recommendations: to physically separate lithium batteries from other flammable hazardous materials stowed on cargo aircraft and to establish maximum loading density requirements that restrict the quantities of lithium batteries and flammable hazardous materials.​ ​

The Air Navigation Commission (ANC) of the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) recommended in January 2016 that lithium-ion batteries be forbidden for carriage as cargo on passenger aircraft. The recommendation does not apply to lithium-ion batteries packed with equipment or lithium-ion batteries contained in equipment. The ANC recommendation will be considered by the ICAO Council in late February this year as an amendment of Annex 18. It is expected that the ICAO Council will endorse ANC’s recommendations and the prohibition will start as of 1 April 2016.  As to cargo aircraft, the ICAO Council has already banned carriage of lithium batteries charged more than 30%, effective as of 1 April 2016. See also the IATA briefing in this regard.

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