By Allison Lampert
MONTREAL (Reuters) - A United Nations civil aviation-led panel on Friday called for improved, fire-resistant packaging to ship lithium batteries, which pilots and plane makers say pose a fire risk.
The International Civil Aviation Organization's (ICAO) dangerous goods panel agreed this week to set up a group of experts to develop safer packaging for the transport of lithium ion batteries used in cellphones and laptops.
The creation of the new group follows concerns by pilots and aircraft manufacturers that existing standards are not strong enough to contain a lithium battery fire.
The new packaging standards would also apply to lithium metal batteries, which are used in watches and are banned on passenger planes globally.
A working group will consider proposals to improve packaging standards at an October meeting at the Montreal-based ICAO. If approved, they would be included in the 2017-2018 edition of the organization's technical instructions for dangerous goods transport.
"We think it's a significant step forward," said panel member Mark Rogers, director of dangerous goods programs for the Air Line Pilots Association.
Hazardous materials industry consultant Bob Richard, vice president for regulatory and government services for U.S.-based Labelmaster Services, said new standards for packaging would be welcome if they are not prohibitively expensive.
Regulators still allow lithium ion batteries as cargo on both passenger and freight aircraft, and battery fires on planes are rare. But their transportation in bulk has recently raised concerns of fire risks, including mention in recent findings by the US Federal Aviation Administration.
A March working paper by an organization representing plane makers like Boeing Co and Bombardier Inc found current firefighting systems on airliners could not "suppress or extinguish a fire involving significant quantities of lithium batteries."
More than a dozen carriers, including Cathay Pacific Airways Ltd, American Airlines Group Inc and Air China Ltd, have either restricted or banned the batteries on both passenger and cargo flights.
The International Air Transport Association, a separate group that represents the majority of the world's carriers, will publish a new addendum this month identifying new restrictions announced by individual carriers for transporting the batteries.
(Editing by Lisa Von Ahn)