FAA slams MIT for lithium battery shipping error

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An improperly labeled fiberboard box containing 33 lithium battery-powered electronic devices has landed the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in hot water with the US Federal Aviation Administration, and highlights the ongoing risk of shipping the batteries on cargo aircraft.

The safety regulator has levied a $175,000 civil penalty on MIT, alleging that the university had shipped the box via FedEx from Cambridge to Seattle on 25 August 2009.

"The package was discovered with smoke and flames coming from it while it was moving on a conveyor at the FedEx sorting facility in Medford, Massachusetts," the FAA says in a 2 September release.

"Two of the devices in the package heated and melted, which caused the surrounding cushioning and packaging to catch fire," the FAA continued. "Because the package was not properly labeled and marked, Federal Express employees did not know the shipment contained hazardous material. They made several unsuccessful attempts to extinguish the flames with a fire extinguisher."

The FAA notes that the batteries "were not packaged in a manner that would prevent a short-circuit that could create sparks or generate a dangerous quantity of heat", nor was the box marked as containing dangerous goods.

Since the time of the incident, safety officials have repeatedly have raised concerns about lithium battery shipments, most recently with the International Federation of Air Line Pilots' Association (IFALPA) asking for revised ICAO regulations for shipping the batteries.

According to IFALPA, lithium batteries have been responsible for over 40 reported incidents since 1990, involving smoke, fire, extreme heat or explosion in aircraft cabins and cargo holds. Two pilots were killed in September 2010 when their UPS Boeing 747-400F crashed near Dubai after an in-flight cargo hold fire and smoke in the cockpit. Investigators determined that there were ion battery packs onboard that had not been labeled as hazardous materials.

MIT has 30 days to respond to the FAA's enforcement letter.