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Fiery risk? Air shipments of batteries questioned

Firefighters battled a 2006 blaze on a plane at Philadelphia International Airport. Lithium-ion batteries were initially considered a source of the fire on the UPS DC-8, but the NTSB later determined they were not.
Firefighters battled a 2006 blaze on a plane at Philadelphia International Airport. Lithium-ion batteries were initially considered a source of the fire on the UPS DC-8, but the NTSB later determined they were not.Associated Press/Joseph Kaczmarek/File 2006

WASHINGTON — Dramatic US government test results raise new concern that bulk shipments of rechargeable lithium batteries carried as cargo on passenger planes are susceptible to fires or explosions that could destroy the airliners.

Yet US and international officials have been slow to adopt safety restrictions that might affect the industries that depend on the batteries and the airlines that profit from shipping them. The batteries are used in products ranging from cellphones and laptops to hybrid cars.

Shipments of rechargeable batteries on passenger planes are supposed to be limited to no more than a handful in one box, under safety standards set by the UN’s International Civil Aviation Organization and adopted by the United States and others. But a loophole lets shippers pack many small boxes in one shipment and get around the rules. Tens of thousands of the batteries may be packed into pallets or containers and loaded into the cargo holds of wide-body passenger planes.

In an April test by the Federal Aviation Administration, a cargo container was packed with 5,000 lithium-ion batteries and a cartridge heater added to simulate a single battery experiencing uncontrolled overheating. The heat from the cartridge triggered escalating overheating in nearby batteries, which spread in a chain reaction. Temperatures reached about 1,100 degrees Fahrenheit.

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Once about 300 batteries were involved, a fierce explosion blew open the container door and sent boxes flying, surprising FAA and industry observers. Within seconds, the cargo container was in flames. The explosion came from a buildup of flammable gases.

A second test in September produced similar results, despite the addition of a fire suppression agent. Safety authorities have long known that lithium-ion batteries can fuel violent fires if they are defective, damaged, overcharged, incorrectly packaged, or exposed to extreme heat. But they have been allowed to be shipped on passenger planes because it was thought the halon gas fire suppression systems in the cargo compartments of airliners could extinguish any fire.

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The container tests have raised a new worry: that an explosion could increase pressure in the cargo hold, activating depressurization valves that would let halon gas and smoke vent into the passenger cabin and cockpit. That would dilute fire suppression in the hold and let a fire rage unchecked.

The cargo problem is distinct from one that caused a fire at Logan International Airport two years ago in a lithium-ion battery installed in the operating system of a Boeing 787. In that case, Boeing failed to anticipate that a short circuit in one of the battery’s eight cells could spread to other cells and ignite a fire, the National Transportation Safety Board said Monday.

The UN’s civil aviation agency is considering proposals to strengthen packaging, labeling, and handling standards for lithium-ion battery shipments, and airline pilot unions are pushing for limits on the number of batteries that can be transported. No consensus emerged at an October meeting in Brazil, and any changes aren’t expected to take effect until 2017.

An airliner might withstand a fire generated by a small number of lithium-ion batteries, but a fire involving many of them could destroy the plane, said Paul Rohrbach, systems engineer for aircraft maker Airbus.