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FAA Lithium Battery Warning Fuels Fresh Scepticism

The FAA’s safety alert issued on Tuesday (February 9) urging further assessment of the risks associated with transporting lithium ion and lithium metal batteries by passenger and cargo airlines further illustrates the industry’s scepticism towards the technology. In the statement, the regulator warned of recent tests highlighting the potential risk of a “catastrophic aircraft loss due to damage resulting from a lithium battery fire or explosion,” while also stating that current cargo fire suppression systems “cannot effectively control” a lithium battery fire. Following the tests, the FAA confirmed that the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) along with Boeing and Airbus have advised airlines about the dangers associated with carrying li-ion batteries as cargo while also advising them to carry out safety assessments on how to manage risk.

In the statement, the regulator warned of recent tests highlighting the potential risk of a “catastrophic aircraft loss due to damage resulting from a lithium battery fire or explosion,” while also stating that current cargo fire suppression systems “cannot effectively control” a lithium battery fire.

Following the tests, the FAA confirmed that the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) along with Boeing and Airbus have advised airlines about the dangers associated with carrying li-ion batteries as cargo while also advising them to carry out safety assessments on how to manage risk.

The question now is after the FAA’s warning, what lies ahead for lithium battery transportation in commercial aviation? While many carriers across the world have already imposed bans on bulk shipments of lithium batteries on their aircraft in the past year, there are still no formal guidelines implementing an industry-wide ban.

Some carriers have also chose to deal with the issue in a different way. Cargo airlines FedEx and United Parcel Service are examples of this, instead opting to develop new technologies designed to minimise any potential battery fire.

Their approach mirrors that of the one Boeing took in 2013 following a series of Lithium ion related incidents involving Japan Airlines-operated 787s led to the temporary grounding of the fleet. The OEM said it had implemented a retrofit solution safeguarding the aircraft in the event of future fires, but conceded that it didn’t know what caused the fires and that it may never find out.

Despite no further incidents since with the 787, scepticism has remained over the relationship between lithium batteries and commercial aircraft.

While the FAA haven’t made calls for an outright ban, its urging of stricter regulations now puts the emphasis on airlines. How they address the safety warning will prove interesting, more so given voices for an outright ban are increasing.

On Wednesday (February 10), the US National Transportation Safety Board went one further and called for a complete ban of bulk battery shipments on all commercial aircraft, a view echoed by North America’s largest pilot union The Air Line Pilots Association.

With such strong terms being used by the FAA about the worst case scenario a Li-ion battery incident could provoke, eradicating doubts over their transportation on commercial and cargo aircraft are unlikely to be eradicated anytime soon, if ever.  

 

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