Two major U.S airlines say they will no longer accept rechargeable battery shipments as new government tests confirm that explosions and violent fires are likely to occur when large numbers of batteries enclosed in cargo containers overheat.
Tests conducted last month by the Federal Aviation Administration show that rechargeable batteries, also called lithium-ion batteries, consistently emit explosive gases when they overheat or short-circuit, The Associated Press has learned. In the recent tests, as well as other FAA tests last year, the buildup of gases, primarily hydrogen, led to fierce explosions.
An FAA video of one of the tests obtained by the AP shows an explosion knocking a cargo container door off its hinges and tossing boxes of batteries into the air. The container was engulfed in fire minutes later.
In the test, a cartridge heater was used to simulate a single battery overheating. The heater caused nearby batteries to overheat and the short-circuiting spread to many of the nearly 5,000 batteries in the container. It’s common for tens of thousands of batteries to be placed in a single container.
Citing safety concerns, United Airlines on Monday informed its cargo customers it will no longer accept bulk shipments of the batteries, which are used to power everything from smartphones to laptops to power tools.
Delta Air Lines quietly stopped accepting bulk shipments of the rechargeable batteries on Feb. 1. The airline said in a statement that it took the action in response to government testing and concerns raised by its pilots and flight attendants.
Fort Worth-based American Airlines, stopped accepting some types of lithium-ion battery shipments on Feb. 23. But the airline is continuing to accept small packages of batteries known under dangerous goods regulations as Section II batteries. However, American says it will only accept these packages on pallets rather than in containers and will not allow them to be overpacked.
All three airlines said they will continue to accept bulk shipments of equipment containing batteries or in which batteries are placed in the same package as equipment. Placing batteries inside equipment like laptops or in the same package as power tools creates additional buffering and is believed to provide added protection, although safety experts say that theory hasn’t been fully tested.
The decisions by United and Delta airlines could put pressure on other international carriers to refuse battery shipments or appear indifferent to safety.
“We hope these actions will encourage other airlines to follow suit and discontinue the bulk shipment of lithium batteries,” said the Air Line Pilots Association. The union has been pressing U.S. regulators and international aviation authorities to ban the shipments.