Fires that caused the crashes of two Boeing 747s — one in Dubai in 2010 and one in South Korea in 2011 — were blamed on battery shipments. And in 2013, the FAA grounded the entire fleet of Boeing 787s after a series of battery fires.
The decision to impose a global ban on their shipment was made by the International Civil Aviation Organization on Monday. The group opted to halt the shipments until at least 2018 to allow for development of better fire systems on planes that can contain a fire if the batteries ignite.
“The U.S. Department of Transportation supports the International Civil Aviation Organization Council’s decision to prohibit the carriage of lithium ion batteries as cargo onboard passenger aircraft until safer methods of transport are developed,” Namrata Kolachalam, a DOT spokeswoman, said in a statement released Monday night. “This is a necessary action to protect passengers, crews, and aircraft from the current risk to aviation safety.”
The transport of lithium-ion batteries was the subject of several heated exchanges this month as the House Transportation Committee debated a bill to reauthorize funding for the FAA. The bill would continue to prohibit the FAA from banning the batteries. Congress, reacting to the battery industry, told the FAA in 2012 that it could not impose any restriction on their shipment that exceeded the actions of ICAO.
As Congress debated the FAA bill this month, members who wanted the batteries banned said colleagues who did not were putting the interests of the battery industry ahead of the safety of their constituents. Rep. John L. Mica (R-Fla.), who wrote the 2012 provision, responded by displaying his cellphone and reminding committee members that millions of people fly with the devices daily without incident.
The ICAO action would appear to make the argument moot, because the FAA is allowed under the law to follow ICAO’s action in banning the batteries. Congress could take additional steps to protect the battery industry, but with current FAA reauthorization, to extend funding, apparently stalled in Congress, the law approved in 2012 would dictate FAA policy.
Pilots unions and aircraft manufacturers have called for a ban on battery shipments after FAA testing last year showed that they posed a danger. Many airlines already have refused to accept bulk shipments.
The testing showed that when the batteries are overheated they emit explosive gases, and when those gases ignite, the aircraft’s Halon fire suppression systems weren’t able to contain the blaze.
The Rechargeable Battery Association said Monday that the ban, which takes effect April 1, would cause a “significant disruption in the logistics supply chain.”