The United Nations' aviation agency, the International Civil Aviation Organization, on Monday prohibited the shipment of lithium-ion batteries as cargo on passenger aircraft, following concerns by pilots and aviation engineers that they are a fire risk.
Lithium metal batteries, generally used in watches, have already been banned on passenger planes globally. Lithium metal batteries are not rechargeable while lithium-ion batteries, generally used in laptops and mobile phones, can be recharged.
ICAO said the ban would come into effect as of April 1, and would be maintained until a new fire-resistant packaging standard is designed to transport batteries.
ICAO Council President Olumuyiwa Benard Aliu said in a statement that the new packaging standard is expected by 2018.
The ban will be mandatory for ICAO member states.
Pilots and aircraft manufacturers are concerned that current standards do not meet the requirements to contain lithium battery fires.
Safety concerns increased after FAA tests showed gases emitted by overheated batteries can build up in cargo containers, leading to explosions capable of disabling aircraft fire suppression systems and allowing fires to rage unchecked. As a result of the tests, an organisation representing aircraft manufacturers, including the world's two largest, Boeing and Airbus, said last year that airliners aren't designed to withstand lithium battery fires and that continuing to accept battery shipments is "an unacceptable risk."
More than other types of batteries, lithium-ion batteries are susceptible to short-circuit if they are damaged, exposed to extreme temperatures, overcharged, packed too close together or contain manufacturing defects. When they short-circuit, the batteries can experience uncontrolled temperature increases known as "thermal runaway." That, in turn, can spread short-circuiting to nearby batteries until an entire shipment is overheating and emitting explosive gases.
It's not unusual for tens of thousands of batteries to be shipped in a single cargo container.
Since 2006, three cargo jets have been destroyed and four pilots killed by in-flight fires that accident investigators say were either started by batteries or made more severe by their proximity. The International Federation of Air Line Pilots Associations lobbied the ICAO council unsuccessfully to extend the ban to cargo carriers.
Besides the ban on shipments on passenger planes, the ICAO also approved a requirement that batteries shipped on cargo planes be no more than 30 percent charged, and imposed new limits on small packages of batteries.
Dozens of airlines have already voluntarily stopped accepting battery shipments, but others oppose a ban. KLM, the royal Dutch airline, made a presentation to a lower-level ICAO panel arguing against a ban, according to an aviation official familiar with the presentation. KLM and Air France are owned by a Franco-Dutch holding company. Representatives from the Netherlands and France on the dangerous goods panel voted last fall against a ban.
A dangerous goods expert familiar with ICAO’s thinking questioned whether a ban on lithium-ion batteries would actually make passenger planes safer. He said instances of such battery fires involved deliberate mislabelling by shippers.
"When the industry banned the shipment of lithium-metal batteries, we saw instances of them being passed off as lithium ion batteries," said the expert, who was not authorised to speak publicly. "Those people who are not complying now won't comply with a prohibition."