United Airlines has banned the bulk shipment of lithium-ion batteries on its aeroplanes over growing fire safety concerns.
United followed its rival, Delta Airlines, which last month refused to carry bulk shipments of the batteries used in mobile devices.
The decision means that United is now the second major US airline to ban the bulk shipping of lithium-ion batteries.
“Our primary concerns when transporting dangerous goods are the safety of our customers, our customers’ shipments and the environment,” United Airlines was quoted as saying by the BBC in a statement.
The decision comes amid growing concerns of the fire risks posed by lithium-ion batteries. The Federal Aviation Administration has reportedly carried out two tests so far, both of which revealed that the batteries could cause a major fire on board an aircraft.
In one of its tests, the FAA apparently filled a cargo container with 5,000 lithium-ion batteries and a cartridge heater, to simulate a single battery overheating. That single overheating battery triggered a chain reaction in the other batteries, and temperatures reached about 600C, followed by an explosion. Officials are deeply concerned as this is a potentially catastrophic event on an aircraft.
A second test reportedly produced similar results, despite the addition of a fire-suppression agent.
And there is a suspicion among officials that overheating lithium-ion batteries has caused a number of plane crashes. Apparently the Malaysia Airlines flight 370 which went missing last year was carrying 440lb of lithium-ion batteries in its cargo, although there is no confirmation that it was responsible for the downing of that aircraft.
But aviation officials believe lithium-ion batteries contributed to fires that destroyed two Boeing 747 cargo planes, which killed all four crew members.
A Boeing 747 cargo plane operated by UPS Airlines developed an in-flight fire in 2010 and crashed in an unpopulated area in Dubai. A subsequent FAA investigation noted the large quantity of lithium-ion batteries had been on board.
A year later in 2011, an Asiana Airlines cargo plane carrying 880lb (400kg) of lithium batteries crashed into the Korea Strait.
None of the crew on both planes survived the crashes.
Lithium-ion batteries are of course widely used in the tech industry, and are frequently found in laptop computers, mobile phones and tablets.
The decision by two leading American airlines to ban the shipment of these batteries will raise the question of how many other airlines will follow suit. If enough airlines opt to ban the transportation of these batteries altogether, it could conceivably slow the arrival of new devices if all batteries in the future have to be transported by land and sea.
In 2011, civil aviation officials in Australia launched a formal investigation after an Apple iPhone had to be doused by a flight attendant with a fire extinguisher on an internal flight. An unnamed passenger’s iPhone 4 reportedly began glowing red and smoking, causing the flight attendant to reach for a fire extinguisher.
The tech industry meanwhile has a lot of experience of dealing with the problems of these batteries. In 2012, HP agreed to pay a civil penalty of $425,000 (£272,797) that resolved allegations that it knowingly sold laptops with battery packs that could overheat or catch fire.
HP recalled 70,000 batteries in May 2009 that were used in HP and Compaq laptops and sold between August 2007 and March 2008. It then recalled an additional 54,000 lithium ion batteries in May 2010 after further reports emerged that they could catch fire.
Last year, Panasonic had to recall 43,140 Toughbook batteries due to a potential fire risk from overheating, following three incidents of the ruggedised tablets overheating and catching fire.
Last April Sony warned of a serious risk of fire from its VAIO Fit 11A hybrid laptop. In 2010, a homeowner blamed her company laptop for causing a fire at her thatched cottage that resulted in more than £350,000 damages.
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