United latest carrier to restrict lithium batteries

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Citing recent troubling fire safety reports from the FAA and the International Air Transport Association (IATA), United Continental Holdings, Inc., has placed tighter restrictions on the transportation of lithium-ion batteries in the cargo holds of its passenger aircraft, joining other carriers that have already imposed restrictions.

Under the new policy, the company, operator of Chicago-based United Airlines, said it will no longer accept bulk shipments of lithium-ion batteries that are stored in traditional, sealed ULD containers. Instead, they “will continue to accept lithium-ion batteries loaded on open or flat containers,” the airline said.

According to tests the FAA conducted earlier this spring, lithium-ion shipments that are stored in sealed cargo containers and exposed to high heat or fire run an elevated risk of explosion.  Fires can also be caused by batteries that are damaged, leaking or improperly stored.

The new United rules are not expected to have a major financial impact on the airline because these rechargeable batteries – used to power various popular electronic devices, such as laptops, cell phones and power tools – make up “an extremely small percentage” of United’s cargo volume, a company statement read, adding that the policy was in place only “out of an abundance of caution.”

Delta Air Lines and Air France are two major carriers that have already stopped shipping all lithium-ion batteries as cargo on passenger jets, no matter what kind of container is used. The International Civil Aviation Organization, a division of the United Nations, is also considering a ban on shipments of the ubiquitous batteries on all commercial flights unless they are packed in some kind of nonflammable agent, such as a fire-resistant gel.

IATA is also weighing in with its recently released “Lithium Battery Risk Mitigation Guidance for Operators,” available for free online, detailing the best practices that could be used when handling the estimated 1 billion batteries that IATA says are shipped by air each year.

“Lithium batteries are safe to transport provided that they are designed, tested, manufactured and packaged in accordance with the global transport safety standards,” said Kevin Hiatt, IATA’s senior vice president-safety and flight operations.

However, the new IATA guide said “a number of systemic problems” remain with lithium batteries. “Their ubiquitous nature means that people who are completely unaware of the dangerous goods regulations and the requirements for lithium batteries are shipping them as cargo and in mail,” the report said. “Worse still, unscrupulous individuals are prepared to flout the requirements and put passengers and crew at risk. Many passengers are similarly oblivious to the potential hazards of lithium batteries. The result is that there are safety risks from lithium batteries in baggage, cargo and mail.”

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