FAA issues safety alert over lithium batteries

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The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) yesterday issued a safety alert to US and foreign commercial passenger and cargo airlines, urging them to conduct a safety risk assessment to manage the risks associated with transporting lithium batteries as cargo.

The FAA says it also is issuing guidance to its own inspectors to help them determine whether the airlines have adequately assessed the risk of handling and carrying lithium batteries as cargo.

The administration says battery fire testing has highlighted the “potential risk of a catastrophic aircraft loss due to damage resulting from a lithium battery fire or explosion” and current cargo fire suppression systems cannot effectively control a lithium battery fire.

As a result of tests, the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) and aircraft manufacturers Boeing and Airbus have advised airlines about the dangers associated with carrying lithium batteries as cargo and also have encouraged them to conduct safety risk assessments.

The FAA says: “Hazardous materials rules currently ban passenger airlines from carrying lithium-metal batteries as cargo. In addition, a number of large commercial passenger airlines have decided voluntarily not to carry rechargeable, lithium-ion batteries.

“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’s Safety Alert For Operators (SAFO) encourages airlines that previously conducted safety assessments to reevaluate them in light of new evidence from the agency’s recent lithium battery fire tests.

The US National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) also issued two safety recommendations yesterday which it says is to “physically separate lithium batteries from other flammable hazardous materials stowed on cargo aircraft and to establish maximum loading density requirements that restrict the quantities of lithium batteries and flammable hazardous materials”.

These safety recommendations, the NTSB says address to the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, are derived from the investigation of the 28 July, 2011, in-flight fire and crash of Asiana Airlines Flight 991 in international waters about 80 miles west of Jeju International Airport.

The NTSB participated in the investigation, headed by the Republic of Korea’s Aviation and Railway Accident Investigation Board.

NTSB chairman, Christopher A. Hart says: “The National Transportation Safety Board urges the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration to take action on these safety recommendations to reduce the likelihood and severity of potential cargo fires and to provide additional time for the crew to safely land a cargo aircraft in the event a fire is detected.”

The NTSB says it strongly believes the circumstances and findings in the Asiana Flight 991 accident show the need for new cargo segregation and loading density requirements.