What will happen if lithium ion batteries are banned on passenger planes?

The United Nations International Civil Aviation Organization has issued a directive to ban lithium ion and metal batteries from passenger flights, effective April 1st, 2016. Lithium ion and metal batteries can still be transported on cargo flights. This prohibition on passenger flights is meant to be temporary until investigators have more time to research how to prevent battery fires.

Although the U.N. agency doesn’t have actual enforcement power, national regulators generally follow its directives. The U.S. Federal Aviation Agency is expected to support the ban, in spite of protests from industry groups.

Lithium batteries are dangerous goods that sometimes spontaneously combust. Once the fire starts, it burns so hot and fast that the current firefighting equipment cannot extinguish the fire. This has actually brought down a plane before: In 2010, a UPS cargo plane crashed, killing both members of the crew; an investigation revealed that the fire was caused by the combustion of a pallet carrying batteries.

Here’s what shippers should know about the U.N. battery ban

Here are three major takeaways from the guidance issued by IATA, effective as of April 1st, 2016:

  • Lithium batteries, packed on their own, are forbidden from passenger aircrafts.
  • In addition to the standard labels, lithium battery shipments are to bear a “Cargo Aircraft Only” label.
  • Batteries must be shipped at a state of charge not more than 30% of rated design capacity. You must obtain approval from the State of Origin and the State of the Operator if you ship batteries that are over 30% charged.

The prohibition doesn’t apply to lithium batteries packed with equipment or in equipment (UN 3481).

The ban will continue until there’s more research into the combustibility of batteries. Investigators are also looking into a new fire-resistant packaging standard that will be used to transport the batteries. That new packaging standard is expected by 2018.

Passengers won’t be directly affected: You’ll still be able to keep the batteries in your cellphone and laptop in your carry-on. The greater danger is the close-packing of batteries in the cargo holds of passenger planes.

Here’s how the change might affect the industry

The Rechargeable Battery Association, an industry group, has opposed this move. It has called talk of banning batteries on passenger planes to be “outrageous rhetoric.”

Many shippers are displeased: It’s just gotten more difficult to get batteries at short notice because they have to rely on cargo planes. This is especially true for consumer electronics companies, which make significant use of rechargeable batteries. Their difficulties will likely also be felt by consumers.

The ban will likely benefit cargo-only airlines and specialized carriers like FedEx or UPS. Passenger airlines have just lost a reliable source of income, and cargo airlines will find that their space is in greater demand.