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FAA issues fire warning on lithium batteries

Associated Press / October 9, 2010

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WASHINGTON — Federal aviation officials urged air carriers yesterday to voluntarily take steps to reduce the risk of cargo fires caused by overheated lithium batteries, an indication of regulators’ growing concern about the threat posed by air transport of the batteries.

The warning follows last month’s crash of a United Parcel Service plane in Dubai that killed both pilots.

The Federal Aviation Administration acknowledged publicly for the first time in yesterday’s safety directive that the Boeing 747-400 was carrying a large quantity of lithium batteries. Smoke from a fire in the plane’s main cabin was so thick that the pilots told air traffic controllers they couldn’t see their instruments as they struggled to land.

The safety directive urges air carriers to ask shippers to identify bulk battery loads in shipping documents. It also recommends stowing battery shipments in cargo compartments in the belly of planes, where there are fire suppression systems. There are no fire suppression systems required in the main cabins of cargo or passenger planes.

Since the early 1990s, there have been dozens of incidents of batteries igniting in flight or during cargo handling. But exactly what triggered many of the fires is not well understood.