First, it has taken much too long for the International Civil Aviation Organization to accept that air shipment of lithium ion batteries is a very risky practice, both to those on the airplane and to those over whom it flies (ASW, 3/16). There are enough examples of lithium ion battery fires — in personal items and mass-packaged cargo shipments — to put to rest any question about how dangerous they are.
As a recently retired McDonnell Douglas MD-11 pilot, I am certain I carried pallets of these things, generally without knowing they were on board. At least U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) rules now require informing the crews they are on board.
Second, the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board’s (NTSB’s) recommendations include that operators consider “the capability of the crew to fight an in-flight lithium battery fire.”
There are a few things wrong here:
For one, how will the crew reliably know they have a lithium ion battery–based fire?
For another, the NTSB certainly knows that, even if you know you have a lithium battery fire, you cannot put it out with current technology (and possibly any technology).
It’s questionable to think the crew of a cargo airplane can do anything to help themselves when there is a serious fire, other than put the airplane on the ground (or in the water if that’s all there is) as fast as possible, before they lose control of the aircraft.
When the lithium ion situation came up years ago, many of us knew that the only real solution was to ban their shipment by air. If the industry and the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration had acted then to start to establish a supply line for battery shipments by surface transportation (by ship from the manufacturers in Asia; by rail and truck across land), the risk of loss of life and property, and hence liability (which is what the industry really cares about) would have been nearly eliminated. Yes, lithium ion batteries are still in personal items. But they burn rapidly and generally pose a threat not from their own violent combustion, but by igniting surrounding materials. This is something that current technology does have a possibility to handle.
It has been a poorly kept secret that the lives of cargo aircraft crews are held to be of much lower value than the lives of crews on passenger aircraft. While this will be denied, cargo aircraft fires and crashes simply don’t have the death rate to make a big enough impact to change rules — unless the airplane crashes into a bunch of people. So banning these batteries from passenger aircraft was purely a financial/liability decision. But a cargo airplane can cause just as much liability if it crashes into a populated area. Were the cause to be a lithium ion battery fire, it would be interesting, and tragic, to see the scramble for cover.
These are dangerous goods that simply need to be banned from mass shipment in all aircraft.
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