Fire Risk Prompts Widening Ban on Smartphone Batteries Shipped Via Passenger Jets

By David Fickling | May 22, 2015

Replacing your smartphone battery just got harder.

Fearing cargo fires like one that caused a United Parcel Service Inc. freighter to crash into the desert near Dubai in 2010, at least 18 airlines have banned freight shipments of lithium-ion rechargeable batteries this year. Pilots are pushing for the cells to be taken off all passenger flights until they can be transported more safely.

Removing lithium-ion batteries from parts of the $6.4 trillion global air freight market risks disrupting supply chains for a technology used to power products from Apple Inc. iPhones to Lenovo Group Ltd. laptops. As many as 30 percent of the 5.5 billion cells made each year are shipped by plane, and cargo bans have already affected supplies of defibrillator power-packs in Australia and New Zealand, according to a group representing battery-makers.

“Anybody that ships lithium batteries is affected by this,” George Kerchner, executive director of PRBA — The Rechargeable Battery Association, said by phone from Washington. “It has an impact on everybody, whether you’re a small business or a large business.”

Airline Bans

Emirates, Cathay Pacific Airways Ltd., Cargolux Airlines International SA, and Qatar Airways Ltd., four of the world’s top 10 cargo carriers, have removed shipments of bulk batteries from all flights since January, according to an International Air Transport Association document. Singapore Airlines Ltd., another top-10 cargo airline, won’t allow them on its passenger planes. Delta Air Lines Inc., American Airlines Group Inc., and United Airlines ban them from all flights.

“In the grand scheme of things it wasn’t a difficult decision,” Delta President Edward Bastian told a March 18 media briefing in Sydney. “We’re a $40 billion company.”

Alternative routes to market are still available. While Cathay Pacific has removed the cells from its flights out of Hong Kong, China Southern Airlines Co. will ship them from nearby Guangzhou, according to an e-mailed statement from that carrier.

The two biggest air cargo carriers, UPS and FedEx Corp. haven’t removed them either, according to e-mails from the companies’ respective spokesmen Mike Mangeot and Scott Fiedler.

Tesla Motors Inc. transports the mattress-sized lithium batteries that power its sports cars by ship, a spokeswoman said by e-mail.

Power Density

Angela Lee, a Hong Kong-based Lenovo spokeswoman, declined to comment. Apple didn’t respond to e-mails sent to its offices in California and Australia and three phone messages left for Sydney-based spokespeople Fiona Martin and Alex Waldron.

Lithium-ion technology, first developed commercially by Sony Inc. in 1991, became the most popular form of rechargeable cell in 2007 and now accounts for about three-quarters of the batteries produced each year, according to a PRBA presentation.

The property that makes the technology attractive to electronics companies — “a higher power density for more battery life in a lighter package”, according to an Apple website — also increases the safety hazard if they ignite.

The fires can reach temperatures as high as 850 degrees Centigrade (1,600 degrees Fahrenheit), a 2013 paper published by the U.K.’s Royal Society of Chemistry said.

‘Safety Hazard’

In fire tests conducted by the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration in 2005 and 2006, laptop-style batteries burst open and within 30 seconds started spraying highly flammable liquid. The heat “would often ignite adjacent cells”, while others “exploded forcefully”, creating a fireball and explosive pressure pulse.

Incidents of fire, smoke, extreme heat or explosions involving lithium-ion batteries were reported to the FAA 11 times last year. While that’s a small proportion of the global shipments of the devices, the prevalence of the technology “constitutes a safety hazard that must be managed in a clear and comprehensive manner”, according to IATA.

Relatively minor damage to batteries can cause them to ignite. In one 2011 incident on a flight from the Australian town of Lismore to Sydney, a misplaced internal screw on an iPhone was enough to damage its battery, causing smoke to pour out of the case, an Australian government report said.

Larger consignments can have more dramatic effects. A UPS Boeing 747 carrying 81,000 lithium batteries caught fire and crashed after it left Dubai on Sept. 3, 2010. The cockpit filled with smoke so thick that the crew couldn’t see their instrument panels or look out the windows, according to the official report on the incident.

New Rules

The relatively loose regulations and large volume of lithium battery shipments make them unique among dangerous goods in the air cargo industry, according to Mark Rogers, director of the dangerous goods program at the world’s biggest pilots union, the Air Line Pilots Association International.

Those regulations are changing. A meeting of the International Civil Aviation Organization in Montreal last month agreed to develop new standards to ensure that cells shipped as bulk cargo could be transported safely. Those packed inside electronic equipment and those in passenger luggage are considered less of a risk, and are mostly exempt from the rules.

The new standards, which could include packaging that releases cooling gel or melts to contain the overheating that can cause fires to propagate through a shipment, are unlikely to be rolled out on flights until at least 2017, Rogers said. Passenger carriers are pulling out of carrying the cells until that happens, he said.


Some places have already suffered supply-chain issues. Manufacturers of defibrillator batteries found themselves unable to supply replacements to Australia and New Zealand earlier this year after Qantas Airways Ltd. stopped carrying the cells, the PRBA’s Kerchner said. He didn’t give the names of the manufacturers and said the situation had now been resolved.

While many carriers still ship the cells, it’s not safe to assume they’ll continue to do so, said the pilots association’s Rogers.

“You’ll see more and more operators voluntarily suspending shipments,” he said by phone from San Francisco. “We’re going to see very few of them being shipped by air.”

(With assistance from Tim Culpan in Taipei.)

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