There's a surreal exclusive from the Associated Press about the Dreamliner. While that plane will likely be grounded for the foreseeable future due to concerns about its lithium-ion battery causing a fire, that same battery is now allowed to be transported aboard passenger planes as cargo. Even more surreal, when the Dreamliner was initially cleared for flight, lithium-ion batteries could not be transported aboard passenger planes. The reason? Fire risk. I thought this story was snark when it rolled across my Windows 8 news feed, but it isn't.
Dreamliners worldwide were grounded nearly three weeks ago after lithium ion batteries that are part of the planes led to a fire in one plane and smoke in a second. But new rules exempt aircraft batteries from the ban on large lithium ion batteries as cargo on flights by passenger planes.The reason for this? In October 2011, the International Civil Aviation Organization allowed aircraft batteries that weigh as much as 77 pounds to be transported aboard passenger planes. The change was made at the request of the International Air Transport Association, the lobbying group for the airline industry. It went into effect at the start of 2013. Previously, U.S. law barred the transport of any lithium-ion batteries heavier than 11 pounds aboard passenger planes. However, the battery industry managed to get the law changed so that U.S. regulations can't be stricter than ICAO standards. There's no word yet on whether the Dreamliner has prompted a rethink of this--but one would expect it would trigger one, given the stakes.
In effect, that means the Dreamliner's batteries are now allowed to fly only if they're not attached to a Dreamliner.
The regulations were published on Jan. 7, the same day as a battery fire in a Japan Airlines 787 parked at Boston's Logan International Airport that took firefighters nearly 40 minutes to put out. The timing of the two events appears coincidental.
An awful lot of people in aviation are hoping a rethink comes soon.
Pilots and safety advocates say the situation doesn't make sense. If the 787's battery system is too risky to allow the planes to fly, then it's too risky to ship the same batteries as cargo on airliners, they said.In an even more telling statement, Sully Sullenberger--the man who has become the definition of a pilot remaining cool under pressure--says he would not be comfortable flying an airliner with lithium-ion batteries in its cargo hold.
"These incidents have raised the whole issue of lithium batteries and their use in aviation," said Jim Hall, a former National Transportation Safety Board chairman. "Any transport of lithium batteries on commercial aircraft for any purpose should be suspended until (an) NTSB investigation is complete and we know more about this entire issue."
Apparently the risks of transporting lithium-ion batteries are no secret to cargo pilots. Fires involving lithium-ion batteries can reach temps as high as 1,100 degrees, and are absolute hell to put out. In 2006, a UPS plane carrying lithium-ion batteries caught fire after landing in Philly, and the pilots barely got out alive.
The IATA says it wanted to carry lithium-ion batteries aboard passenger planes so the batteries can be transported when cargo aircraft aren't available or when one is needed right away. But if this story is any indication, it doesn't seem to be worth the safety risk.