Transporting lithium batteries in the bellies of commercial jets is more hazardous than previously recognized, with federal tests revealing that just a handful of burning power cells can overwhelm typical onboard cargo safety and fire-suppression systems.
Results from recent Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) laboratory testing, combined with the latest risk-reduction proposals from battery makers, highlight a shift in the debate over bulk shipments of highly flammable lithium batteries. International regulators and aviation industry officials increasingly worry about the dangers, and they are developing far-reaching packaging restrictions for airborne carriage of the ubiquitous power sources.
Depending on cargo hold pressures, accumulation of gases and internal battery power levels, FAA experts determined that such compartments can even be compromised by the uncontrolled ignition of eight or even fewer batteries.
Over the past nine years, lithium batteries in planes have been implicated in intense, quickly spreading airborne fires that brought down two jumbo freighters and killed their crew, as well as an earlier fire that destroyed a large cargo aircraft after it landed. In the case of a United Parcel Service Boeing 747 that crashed in Dubai in 2010, flight controls were severely damaged less than three minutes after the crew received an initial fire warning. The cockpit rapidly filled with so much smoke that the pilots couldn’t monitor their instruments, change radio frequencies or see anything through the windshield.