FAA, NTSB Cite Lithium Cargo Dangers

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The FAA today issued a safety alert to airlines around the world, urging them to conduct a "safety risk assessment" regarding the transport of lithium batteries as cargo, in light of new evidence from the agency's recent lithium-battery-fire tests. The FAA also advised its inspectors to determine whether airlines have adequately assessed the risk of carrying the batteries as cargo. "FAA battery fire testing has highlighted the potential risk of a catastrophic aircraft loss due to damage resulting from a lithium battery fire or explosion," the safety alert (PDF) says. "Current cargo fire suppression systems cannot effectively control a lithium battery fire." Current rules already ban passenger airlines from carrying lithium-metal batteries as cargo, and some operators have also chosen not to carry rechargeable, lithium-ion batteries. ICAO, Boeing, and Airbus already have advised airlines about the dangers associated with carrying lithium batteries as cargo and have encouraged them to conduct safety risk assessments, the FAA said.

"The safety risk assessment process is designed to identify and mitigate risks for the airlines that still carry lithium batteries and to help those that don't carry them from inadvertently accepting them for transport," the FAA said. Also, the amount of the batteries that can be carried on any single flight should be subject to a maximum loading density. The NTSB's recommendations followed its investigation of an in-flight fire that occurred in July 2011 aboard Asiana Airlines Flight 991, a Boeing 747 cargo plane. The 747 crashed into the sea near South Korea, killing both pilots.

Investigators cited as a contributing factor in the crash the fact that flammable materials and lithium-ion batteries were loaded together in either the same or adjacent pallets. On the accident airplane, the lithium battery shipments were commingled with flammable materials and other hazardous materials on a single pallet. An adjacent pallet also contained flammable materials. The fire originated in that area, the NTSB says, and within four minutes after detection, the smoke and fire spread rapidly throughout the main deck cargo compartment. Less than 17 minutes after the pilots reported a fire on board, the airplane broke up in flight. The NTSB's recommendations (PDF) were directed to the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, which governs U.S. shipments of hazardous materials.