Faced with increasing evidence of potentially catastrophic in-flight fires, major airlines have started to refuse rechargeable battery shipments. On Monday, United Airlines became the second airline to make the announcement that it would no longer be using lithium-ion batteries and that future shipments would be refused. United is the second major national airline to refuse the shipment, following in Delta Air Lines footsteps.
On February 1st, Delta Air Lines was the first company to put a halt to the shipment of rechargeable batteries. Soon after, Air France also announced their reluctance in continuing to receive the shipments, aviation officials report, however, the airline couldn’t be reached for comments. And while these carriers are refusing bulk shipments altogether, American Airlines only stopped receiving certain shipments of lithium-ion batteries on February 23rd.
The company is still accepting certain shipments, where the batteries are provided in small packages or “overpacked” into cargo containers, however, according to FAA reports, such shipments are even more dangerous as they involve tens of thousands of lithium-ion batteries which are shipped in one single container. Such deliveries are not uncommon and often occur aboard passenger planes and on international flights.
The Federal Aviation Administration has performed several batteries of tests last year and came across some noteworthy results. If such batteries become overheated, chain reactions could begin, causing nearby batteries to short-circuit and also overheat. Because such batteries are packed in the large cargo containers, explosive gas build-ups could occur. Depending on the varying chemistry of each battery type, these explosive gasses were found in different combinations. Yet despite any variation in chemistry, the FAA tests showed, hydrogen was the prevailing gas (where volume was concerned).In some of the tests that the FAA conducted, these gases were the cause of massive explosions. Violent in-flight fires followed the explosions which were powerful enough to blow the container’s doors off.
These recent safety concerns have placed major US airlines in a particularly delicate situation. On the one side, US aviation regulations and international aviation safety standards both allow that bulk battery shipments be accepted by individual airlines. Such shipments are profitable for the airlines in question, and while each airline seeks profit, passenger safety remains the utmost priority. Luckily, no in-flight fires were reported in any of the airlines who have been accepting lithium-ion battery shipments on commercial flights.
One issue, however, raises particular concerns. According to US aviation officials (as well as the officials of other nations), such bulk battery shipments are incriminated in having contributed to (or caused) in-flight fires which ultimately claimed the lives of two Boeing 747 firefighter pilots. A third firefighter pilot managed to escape with his life after being involved in a third incident, landing in Philadelphia. His aircraft was also destroyed.
“Our primary concerns when transporting dangerous goods are the safety of our customers, our customers’ shipments and the environment,”
a United Airlines official said.
Other types of shipments pose no threat, officials claim, so that batteries encased inside their corresponding equipment (such as smartphones or laptops) would continue to be accepted. It seems that if the batteries are placed inside equipment or power tools, an additional buffer is created so that overheating is no longer an issue. This theory, however, remains to be tested, safety officials noted.