The International Civil Aviation Organisation is to consider new safety standards for air transport of lithium batteries in the wake of increased concern over the potential for in-flight fires.
Following a meeting in Montreal in February, the organisation's dangerous goods panel has put forward recommendations that large shipments of batteries be treated and labelled as dangerous, and that shippers be trained to prepare them correctly.
The standards also involve airlines performing acceptance checks and pre-loading inspections, while pilots would be notified of the location of any battery shipment on board an aircraft. Such provisions, if approved by the ICAO Air Navigation Commission, would come into effect from the beginning of 2013.
The transport of lithium batteries has been a discussion point for several years, but the loss of two Boeing 747-400Fs - a UPS jet in Dubai and an Asiana aircraft near Jeju - to in-flight fire in the space of 10 months has intensified the debate, as both had been carrying batteries.
After the Dubai incident, Transport Canada, the US Federal Aviation Administration and the UK Civil Aviation Authority analysed the likelihood of further fire accidents to US-registered aircraft. The assessment - based on five previous accidents - predicted six accidents, at least four battery-related, in the 10 years to 2020.
The model also suggested that, in an extreme case, there could be as many as a dozen accidents. However, during the Montreal meeting the Rechargeable Battery Association rejected the analysis as "flawed" and based on "faulty data and assumptions" - claiming, for instance, that the FAA had based its model on the "mere presence" of batteries on some of the accident flights.
Delegates heard of a disturbing incident at Toronto airport on 29 October, 2011, in which fire ignited on a pallet containing lithium batteries - as well as small-arms cartridges - just before loading on to a Boeing 767 passenger aircraft.
Investigators had no concerns over the equipment design, and found the consignment met "all the requirements" of the technical instructions for shipping, including being correctly classified, labelled, documented and packaged. However, the initiating event remains "unknown", and in response the shipper amended internal procedures on charging the batteries and opted to transport them using freighters only.
Both the Air Line Pilots Association, International (ALPA), and the International Federation of Air Line Pilots' Associations have backed the tighter regulations. "While this recommendation marks critical progress, ALPA pilots will not rest in our work until the safe transport of lithium batteries is ensured on all aircraft," ALPA said.
But it added that it would continue to press for enhanced oversight of battery shippers, better safety standards for batteries contained in electronic equipment and mandatory installation of effective fire suppression in aircraft freight compartments.