Two airliners banning cargo shipments of lithium batteries

OAKLAND, Calif. (KTVU) -- Two major U.S airlines say they will no longer accept rechargeable battery shipments as new government tests confirm that explosions and violent fires are likely to occur when large numbers of batteries enclosed in cargo containers overheat.

Last May, KTVU reported on the danger of lithium batteries on airliners. This was not the earlier story about how the batteries that power up Boeing's new 787 were failing, but rather the issue with lithium batteries being shipped in bulk in the cargo holds of airliners.

The issue also involved the batteries passengers bring on board that power everything including laptops, tablets, smartphones, music players and cameras. It took KTVU 13 months to do the story because U.S. Department of Energy refused to turn over video of tests it had done on such batteries.

That video showed they can fail in smoke, flame and explosion. The battery industry insisted the batteries were safe.

This week, United Airlines joined Delta Airlines in prohibiting the shipment of bulk quantities of lithium batteries in their cargo holds. American Airlines limits the amount of lithium batteries that can be shipped. More restrictions are likely to follow.

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has also conducted tests that show that the failing batteries emit explosive, toxic gases that can build up in cargo holds. The tests further reveal that an explosion can blow the doors off the containers and erupt into major fires reaching over 1100 degrees.

Despite U.S. airline actions, shipping of lithium batteries is permitted under international safety standards. A 2012 law passed by Congress forbids the Federal government from creating rules that are tougher than those adopted by the UN's Civil Aviation Organization, meaning many airlines will continue to carry them.

Though there have been no confirmed cargo fires aboard passenger planes, in three cargo plane accidents, lithium batteries are suspected of causing the crashes. They are also suspected in the loss of Malaysia Air 370, still missing from last March.

So far, there have been 151 incidents of lithium batteries failing on board the plane or at the airport; many of them single passenger battery failures. While passengers can still bring such batteries on board, spare batteries will need to be in carry on bags, not the luggage that goes into the cargo hold.