UN panel bans shipments of lithium ion batteries on passenger aircraft

A UN panel yesterday approved a temporary ban on cargo shipments of rechargeable lithium batteries on passenger planes as they could cause fires capable of destroying an aircraft.

Though the decision by the Montreal-based International Civil Aviation Organization's top-level governing council is not binding, most countries follow the agency's standards.

The ban will take effect from 1 April.

"This interim prohibition will continue to be in force as separate work continues through ICAO on a new lithium battery packaging performance standard, currently expected by 2018," said Olumuyiwa Benard Aliu, the ICAO council's president, The Associated Press reported.

According to Namrata Kolachalam, a transportation department spokeswoman, the ban was "a necessary action to protect passengers, crews, and aircraft from the current risk to aviation safety."

Lithium-ion batteries are used in myriad products from cellphones and laptops to some electric cars. In 2014, the production of lithium-ion cells stood at 5.4 billion.

A battery comprises two or more cells with the majority of batteries transported on cargo ships, but about 30 per cent are shipped by air.

According to the Federal Aviation Administration estimates, airlines flying to and from the US that accept lithium battery shipments carried 26 million passengers a year.

Lithium metal batteries, used in watches, had already been banned on passenger planes globally and while lithium metal batteries used in watches, are not rechargable, the lithium-ion batteries used in cell phones and laptops, can be recharged.

Pilots and aircraft manufacturers had voiced concerns that existing standards were not enough to contain lithium battery fires.

According to a 2015 working paper by an organization representing plane makers like Boeing Co, current firefighting systems on airliners could not "suppress or extinguish a fire involving significant quantities of lithium batteries."

However, according to Reuters, one expert familiar with ICAO's thinking was not convinced that a ban on lithium-ion batteries would make passenger planes  safer.

He added, instances of such battery fires usually involved deliberate mislabeling 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 authorized to speak publicly, Reuters reported, the expert as saying. "Those people who are not complying now won't comply with a prohibition."