Qantas says it won’t take lithium ion batteries as cargo

A Federal Aviation Administration image from its test on exploding lithium ion batteries. (FAA)
A Federal Aviation Administration image from its test on exploding lithium ion batteries. (FAA)

Earlier story has been updated to include comment from Virgin Australia

Lithium ion batteries will no longer be able to be sent as cargo on board Qantas and Jetstar aircraft from April 1 after the airline group conducted a new safety assessment.

The Qantas Group is the latest to issue a blanket ban on the shipment of lithium ion batteries on both passenger and cargo aircraft, following similar moves from US-based United and Delta Air Lines, as well as Virgin Australia.

Passengers using lithium ion batteries to power devices such as tablets and laptops can continue to bring them on board as carryon luggage.

The airlines have gone beyond the regulations from the International Air Transport Association (IATA), which said on its website the transportation of lithium ion batteries had been restricted to cargo aircraft only since the start of 2015.

An International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) working paper noted there was a “growing body of test data” that existing cargo compartment fire protection systems certified to US or European regulations were unable to suppress or extinguish a fire involving significant quantities of lithium batteries.

The working paper, which stated the position of the International Coordination Council for Aerospace Industry Association (ICCAIA) and the International Federation of Airline Pilots Association (IFALPA), said “continuing to allow the carriage of lithium batteries within today’s transport category aircraft cargo compartments is an unacceptable risk to the air transport industry”.

“ICCAIA recommends that appropriate packaging and shipping requirements be established to safely ship lithium ion batteries as cargo on aircraft and that high density packages of lithium ion batteries and cells not be transported as cargo on passenger aircraft until such time as safer methods of transport are established and followed,” the working paper said.

A Qantas spokesperson said in an emailed statement the move on lithium ion batteries was on top of the company’s existing ban on lithium metal batteries.

“The Qantas Group has updated its dangerous goods policy and will no longer accept shipments of lithium ion batteries for carriage on any passenger or freighter aircraft,” the spokesperson said on Thursday.

“We’ve made this decision on the basis of an internal safety assessment, taking into account new information from aircraft manufacturers and regulators.

“Qantas is always conservative when it comes to safety and we often take action ahead of expected regulatory changes.”

Background material from Qantas said the airline would ship lithium batteries as cargo if it was required for an emergency, such as an urgent medical situation.

Virgin Australia said in a statement shipments of lithium metal batteries packed separately to equipment have not been carried on its aircraft since March 2014 and the prohibition would extend to lithium ion batteries from March 31 2015.

“These changes will not affect passengers, who can continue to travel with electronic devices that include lithium ion batteries,” Virgin said.

“Safety is Virgin Australia’s number one priority.”

Delta president Ed Bastian said the decision to ban lithium ion batteries had not resulted in a big impact on the airline’s bottom line.

“It wasn’t a significant number,” Bastian told reporters in Sydney on Wednesday.

Qantas oneworld alliance partner American Airlines has also banned the bulk shipment of lithium ion batteries. However, the airline will take small packages of batteries grouped together or packed into a single cargo container.

Malaysia Airlines flight MH370, which disappeared a little over a year ago and still missing, was later revealed to be carrying about 200kg of lithium batteries.

Tests conducted by the US Federal Aviation Administration in 2014 found that an overheating battery could cause other batteries nearby to short circuit and also overheat, which turns into a chain reaction. That chain reaction also causes a buildup of explosive gasses that when ignition occurs, the explosion can blow the door off a cargo container and result in a fire.

In 2014, lithium batteries topped the Civil Aviation Safety Authority’s (CASA) most dangerous goods list.