Saturday, July 18, 2015

Boeing Warns Carriers About Flying Bulk Shipments of Lithium Batteries • Plane maker’s message likely sets stage for much tougher global packaging standards for such cargo

The Wall Street Journal 
July 18, 2015 5:53 p.m. ET

Boeing Co. has warned airlines that flying bulk shipments of lithium batteries in the bellies of its passenger jets poses unacceptable fire hazards, likely setting the stage for significantly tougher international packaging standards for all such cargo.

On Friday, the Chicago-based plane maker for the first time issued a formal, across-the-board message explicitly urging passenger carriers world-wide to stop accepting large quantities of the ubiquitous power sources as cargo until more-protective packaging and enhanced shipping procedures are in place.

A Boeing spokesman on Saturday confirmed the gist of the message sent to operators but didn’t provide details or release the document.

An array of types and sizes of lithium power cells are used in everything from cellphones to laptop computers to power tools to various mobile devices. Some versions that aren’t rechargeable are found in electronic cigarettes and other consumer products.

In the past, Boeing provided similar guidance to airlines but only if they specifically requested technical advice, and it signed an industrywide technical paper highlighting that design standards for airlines hadn’t contemplated the high temperatures and explosive gases that can result when thousands of lithium batteries erupt in what is called a “thermal runaway.”

This time, Boeing’s move, which surprised some industry officials, went further because it was unsolicited and amounts to a formal recommendation that is likely to be followed by virtually all customers.

It is the large number of lithium batteries hauled and their proximity to each other in cargo holds that poses the greatest hazard for aircraft. .

Conventional fire-retardant chemicals on planes aren’t able to put out some of those blazes, according tests conducted by the Federal Aviation Administration.

Most other kinds of batteries haven’t been shown to explode or burn at such high temperatures.

Boeing’s latest message about lithium batteries, however, may have only limited immediate or practical impact because dozens of airlines, including Delta Air Lines, British Airways, Cathay Pacific, Singapore Airlines and Air France, already have voluntarily stopped putting bulk lithium batteries in the cargo holds of their passenger planes. Some carriers have stopped accepting cargo shipments of large numbers of lithium batteries altogether.

In addition, Airbus Group SE and a United Nations-backed panel of global safety experts also are on record about potentially catastrophic fire and explosion risks from rechargeable and non-rechargeable lithium batteries, which can reach temperatures hot enough to melt aluminum. Likewise, U.S. air-safety regulators have repeatedly highlighted such dangers.

Friday’s message is particularly important, though, because it signals that Boeing may now be prepared to join the growing chorus of pilot unions, airlines and other industry players calling for a sweeping reassessment of how lithium batteries are transported as cargo on all types of commercial aircraft. The company’s message was first reported by the Associated Press.

An international team of safety experts assembled by the aviation arm of the United Nations later this month is scheduled to debate sweeping changes in packaging and other safeguards affecting a fast-growing global industry that annually churns out billions of cells and generates an estimated $12 billion in revenue from rechargeable batteries alone.

In addition to tougher, more-fire resistant packaging, the expert panel has considered further reductions in the electrical charge inside rechargeable lithium-ion batteries slated for airborne shipments, which is one more way to reduce flammability and possible explosions.

Within hours of Boeing’s message, a leading battery trade group released a statement suggesting that after years of battles, it may have effectively thrown in the towel trying to stem the momentum for such changes.

George Kerchner, executive director of the Rechargeable Battery Association, released a statement saying “we look forward to continuing our engagement with Boeing and other aircraft manufacturers, the airline industry and regulators” at the experts meeting in late July “to discuss battery transportation issues, specifically a new and unprecedented lithium ion battery standard and packaging criteria.”

The International Civil Aviation Organization, the U.N. agency sponsoring the deliberations, has been working for years to devise tougher shipping standards. Some interim changes already are in place.

Looking ahead, experts are considering everything from potential changes in cargo compartments to revised fire-suppression techniques. The latest push puts the onus on battery makers to show under what conditions it would be safe to carry such cargo on passenger planes. Battery manufacturers also are on the defensive to explain why the same safety standards shouldn’t apply to cargo planes.

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