By Joan Lowy, AP
WASHINGTON — A U.N. panel recommended Wednesday that cargo shipments of rechargeable lithium batteries be banned from passenger airliners because the batteries can create fires capable of destroying planes, according to aviation officials familiar with the decision.
The International Civilian Aviation Organization’s air navigation commission, the agency’s highest technical body, also proposed that the ban be lifted if new packaging can be developed that provides an acceptable level of safety.
Final approval from the ICAO top-level council is still needed. The council is scheduled to take up the matter in late February.
The officials spoke on condition that they were not named because they weren’t authorized to speak publicly.
Lithium-ion batteries are used power everything from cellphones and laptops to hybrid and all-electric cars. About 5.4 billion lithium-ion cells were manufactured worldwide in 2014. A battery is made up of two or more cells.
Most batteries are transported on cargo ships, but about 30 percent are shipped by air.
Federal Aviation Administration tests show a single damaged or defective battery can experience uncontrolled temperature increases known as thermal runaway. The overheating can spread throughout a shipment. It’s not unusual for tens of thousands of batteries to be shipped in a single cargo container in the belly of a plane.
In FAA tests, the overheating batteries have released explosive gases that, when ignited, have blown the doors off cargo containers and sent boxes of batteries hurling through the air before becoming engulfed in flames.
Engineers from FAA’s technical center told a public meeting last year that the explosions are forceful enough to knock the interior panels off cargo compartment walls. That would allow halon, the fire suppression agent used in airliners, to escape, leaving nothing to prevent fires from spreading unchecked, they said.
Aviation safety experts believe at least three cargo planes have been destroyed by lithium battery fires since 2006. Four pilots died in those accidents.
The proposed ban doesn’t apply to cargo planes despite efforts by the International Federation of Air Line Pilot Associations to include cargo operations.
A trade association for the rechargeable battery industry didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.