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After UPS Crash in Dubai, US Issues Lithium Battery Warning

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Lithium batteries could pose a serious fire hazard to cargo flights, the US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) is warning. The safety alert comes amid suspicion that the crash of UPS flight 006, a Boeing 747-400, last month in Dubai may have been the result of a fire sparked by a shipment of lithium batteries.

Though the cause of the crash has yet to be determined, the FAA said the plane was carrying a large quantity of lithium batteries in its cargo hold. According to a report from Bloomberg News, initial analysis of the plane’s on-board recorders showed a fire warning followed by smoke in the cockpit. The crash killed both pilots.

According to the same Bloomberg report, the National Transportation Safety board said in 2008 that lithium batteries had triggered fire, smoke or heat aboard aircraft 13 times from February 2001 to July 2007. A UPS plane was destroyed in February 2006 in Philadelphia after a fire probably began in containers storing electronic equipment, the NTSB concluded in 2008.

In the alert issued to airlines last week, the FAA said new research shows lithium batteries are sensitive to heat and can ignite in flight if transported in cargo compartments that get too hot. The explosive potential of lithium metal cells can easily damage (and potentially perforate) cargo liners, or activate the pressure relief panels in a cargo compartment, the FAA said. Either of these circumstances can potentially lead to a loss of Halon 1301, a suppression agent found in Class C cargo compartments.

The FAA recommends better identification and tracking of lithium-battery cargo shipments, along with “special attention to ensuring careful handling” of such cargo. Experts believe that limiting the number of batteries in a cargo container, or the total number on a plane, can substantially reduce risks.

According to The Wall Street Journal, certain types of lithium batteries already are banned from the holds of passenger jets. And pilot groups have been pushing for years for more-stringent safeguards covering cargo planes.

Last week, the FAA confirmed that Transportation Department officials already have submitted a final rule restricting airborne shipments of lithium batteries for White House review, the Journal said. It isn’t clear how long that will take.

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