Are “Passenger Lithium-ion Batteries” the same as “Cargo Lithium-ion Batteries?”

Captain Paul Miller preparing for a coming storm.
Captain Paul Miller preparing for a coming storm.

Recent passenger jet fires involving B787 Dreamliner have made news, but is it really new news? FAA and other regulators have dismissed the dangers of lithium-ion batteries when carried on cargo aircraft because. Why? Well, perhaps it is because fires on on cargo airline aircraft result in “no significant loss of life?” Isn’t this the legal reasoning offered by aviation officials when safety issues concerned cargo airline flights and not passenger airlines? That is right, cargo companies are called cargo airlines and operate under much the same rules as passenger carrying airlines.

But when a recent fatigue law was ruled not applicable to cargo airlines, thus cargo pilots, again by these same aviation officials, cargo pilots cried out, “Not fair to us!”

What they should have cried out should have been, “Not fair to the flying public!”

Yes, this ruling carved out an exemption from all sorts of safety rules for cargo airlines by aviation officials, from the same rules that will govern passenger carrying airlines. What I am arguing is this “carving out”process by aviation officials could well be seen as quite unfair to the flying public. How so you might ask?

Here are several examples. In 2006, lithium-ion batteries carried as cargo on a cargo airline caught fire in the air. A crew was hospitalized after they barely got the jet on the ground, that same aircraft finally being total destroyed by that fire.  The crew had to jump out of  cockpit windows to escape a burning smoke-filled aircraft.  Then again, four years later two cargo airline crews were not so lucky. In both of those cases in 2010 the fires were so quick moving and so intense, that despite their best efforts,  the crews of both aircraft perished in the fires while still in the air and then the cargo aircraft crashed.

Once again however, aviation officials, in a show of unprecedented irony, ascribed the events to cargo airlines and therefore not a passenger airline issue. Strangely enough however, the one common thread in these three stories are the batteries, the lithium-ion batteries. In each case, the batteries carried as cargo caught fire in the air and then caused massive fires inside the airplanes.  Despite the three known fires investigated by aviation officials, despite warnings going back to 2006 that these lithium-ion batteries can be very unsafe to carry in the air, these same aviation officials approved the use of these same batteries on the B787 Dreamliner. Not only was the approval for carriage of the batteries, but the approval was to hook up the batteries to the aircraft electrical system as electrical power sources, meaning that on every flight of a B787, there would be large lithium-ion batteries aboard and connected.

Many people would ask why this was done and why it was allowed to be done? My guess, and it is only a guess is that most likely, battery manufacturing experts explained to some aviation official lawyers, that these are somehow different batteries and different battery applications than those involved in the three cargo aircraft destructive mishaps. On paper, on a slide presentation in front of a room of officials, that argument probably, and obviously,  played well.

But in the end, the question remains now in the front of the minds of the public and press, “Are ‘Passenger Airline Lithium-ion Batteries’ the same as ‘Cargo Airline Lithium-ion Batteries’?” The events surrounding recent B787 lithium-ion battery related fires seems to raise serious questions about that question.

Maybe time and science and engineering will show us that this gendre of lithium-ion batteries can be made safe for the skies. That would be preferable for the future of the battery industry and the airline industry. But for right now, the question seems to be that they are similar enough in their fire catching characteristics to make all us in safety quite concerned?

Maybe these same aviation official lawyers can reconsider whether cargo pilots are somehow less susceptible to fatigue than passenger pilots and rescind the cargo carve out of the most recent fatigue rulings.100_3985 For it is in this transgression of logic that B787 Dreamliners took to the skies with lithium-ion batteries that may be the same type of batteries that brought the first of three cargo airline aircraft to destruction more that six years ago.

Published by Capt. Paul Miller

Aviation safety expert with 43 years in the sky

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