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Passenger aircraft holds can again carry lithium-ion batteries later this year


LITHIUM-ION batteries will be allowed back inside the bellyholds of passenger aircraft in the latter part of this year, following improvements in global packaging standards, pending design and regulatory approval.

It will reverse a 2016 ban on carrying the batteries. The move comes despite the US Federal Aviation Administration in January identifying 191 "events" involving lithium batteries producing smoke, fire, extreme heat or explosions in the air or at airports worldwide since 1991, reported Reuters.

The ban reversal has met with resistance from airlines, some of whom argue that packaging alone will not fully protect against cargo battery fires due to the mislabelling of battery shipments. Subsequently, airlines and battery makers want aircraft manufacturers to amend the design of jetliners to introduce cargo fire-safety measures.

Carriers interviewed by Reuters described finding packages of mislabelled lithium-ion batteries, often by shippers trying to avert the ban. Hong Kong's Civil Aviation Department flagged cases of battery packages mislabelled in manifests as clothes, shoes and toys in a 2017 notice to airlines.

"Cargo holds of modern planes are lined with materials and equipped with fire suppression systems that aren't designed to contain a lithium ion battery fire," noted Germany's Lufthansa.

Lithium-ion batteries were a contributing factor in the crash of an Asiana Airlines flight that killed the two pilots of a Boeing 747 freighter in 2011, according to a report by Korea's Aviation and Railway Accident Investigation Board.

The source of the fire that led to the crash was not determined, but the batteries were a factor because they were so flammable, the report said.

Both Boeing and Airbus said that they are working with industry to improve aviation safety and already meet or surpass standards.

US-based PRBA, the rechargeable battery association, supports "robust" and "cost-effective" packaging standards but also believes plane makers should factor into their designs "that large volumes of dangerous goods are transported by air," director George Kerchner said.

New models such as Boeing's proposed mid-market jet could include modern fire-resistant materials as added protection, airlines said.

Aviation working groups are weighing new standards to improve cargo safety but talks are at an early stage, International Air Transport Association (IATA) safety director Rudy Quevedo said.

"Operations, hazardous materials and airplane design have to work as a system, with each element contributing to safety, but no one element providing all the mitigations," the FAA added.

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