Why have both the Federal Aviation Administration and Boeing suddenly both gone public in issuing warnings about the “immediate and urgent risk” (quoting the FAA) of allowing consignments of lithium-ion batteries to be shipped in the cargo of passenger-carrying flights?
Last Thursday’s statement by the FAA’s Angela Stubblefield, a hazardous materials expert, that there is now a body of evidence that the batteries can cause explosions and fires capable of destroying an airplane echoes the urgency of a warning sent to all airlines by Boeing in July that the shipment of batteries created “an unacceptable risk” to crew and passengers.
A week later Airbus followed, issuing a similar warning recommending that operators of all of its airplanes conduct “a full risk assessment” of what was rather vaguely termed “high quantities” of the batteries in cargo.
The Boeing warning was issued as a Multi Operator Message. These are normally issued to inform airlines of a newly detected safety problem experienced by an airline during operations and are related to a specific airplane type—but in this case the warning covered all Boeing airplanes. The warnings are also issued following a crash if investigators have homed in on a possible cause.
Specifically, the Boeing warning recommended that “high density packages of lithium-ion batteries and cells not be transported as cargo on passenger airplanes until such time as safer methods of transport are established and followed.”
… One persistently discussed scenario is whether the airplane was stricken by a fire in a cargo hold initiated in a consignment of lithium-ion batteries. There is now certainly a solid body of circumstantial evidence to justify including this scenario’s effects in a simulation.
… The essential record of the batteries in the shipment aboard Flight 370 begins the day before departure, March 7 last year. According to a report by the government of Malaysia (PDF), the “fresh” single cells making up the batteries were manufactured at a Motorola Solutions plant in Bayan Lepas, an industrial center 215 miles northwest of Kuala Lumpur. On March 7 batteries for mobile phones were assembled by combining two of the small single cells for each phone. On March 8 the assembled batteries were trucked to Kuala Lumpur and loaded along with the rest of the cargo of the 777.
… Fire isn’t the only hazard presented by a shipment of lithium-ion batteries. Dr. Ettel explains: “The organic electrolyte in lithium-ion batteries decomposes at high temperatures, generating very toxic fumes typically containing compounds of fluorine and even arsenic.” (If the fumes reached the cabin and flight deck the passengers and crew would be incapacitated.)