Battle over batteries
The Airline Pilots Association (ALPA) is using several recent incidents to renew its call, over the objection of battery makers, for a temporary ban on lithium batteries carried as shipments on passenger and all-cargo planes.
The rechargeable batteries are commonly used to power laptops, cell phones, cameras, MP3 players and other electronic devices. Lithium batteries can short-circuit, overheat and catch fire. The trade association asked the Department of Transportation to prohibit bulk battery shipments on commercial aircraft until new regulations are in place to ensure their safe transport.
The Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) is drafting a rule addressing lithium battery safety, but ALPA said in an Aug. 20 letter to Acting Deputy Administrator Cynthia Douglas that immediate action is needed to ensure aviation safety.
'We have been most fortunate that the lithium-ion battery malfunctions ' did not cause an accident, but luck is not a sound safety strategy,' ALPA President John Prater wrote.
The DOT banned the shipment of non-rechargeable lithium batteries from passenger aircraft in late 2004. Non-rechargeable batteries pose a severe threat because lithium fires cannot be extinguished by Halon 1301, an FAA-certified fire suppressant. Rechargeable batteries are not as flammable and can be put out by fire extinguishers.
During the summer, fire, smoke or evidence of fire associated with battery shipments occurred aboard three separate airliners, including a FedEx plane at Minneapolis-St. Paul airport with about 1,000 smokeless cigarettes and a UPS plane in Honolulu.
In 2006, a battery fire destroyed a UPS freighter that made an emergency landing in Philadelphia. Following the incident, the National Transportation Safety Board recommended the batteries be more strictly regulated and tested. The Federal Aviation Administration has documented dozens of incidents involving lithium- and lithium-metal batteries.
Computer makers in 2006 recalled millions of older generation batteries after a series of laptop fires.
The ALPA has urged transportation officials for five years to classify lithium batteries as dangerous goods and require special packaging, labeling, marking, testing and pilot notification.
'Now, the evidence of a clear and present danger is mounting. We need an immediate ban on these dangerous goods to protect airline passengers, crews and cargo,' said Mark Rogers, director of ALPA's dangerous goods programs, in a statement. 'If we are not able to secure these protections for the traveling public through swift regulatory action, we will ask Congress to immediately intervene to ensure the safe shipment of lithium batteries.'
Transportation unions have been pushing since the Obama administration took office to include the changes in the FAA reauthorization bill.
A ban threatens emergency shipments of batteries needed to power life-saving medical equipment such as portable oxygen concentrators, and restricts mission-critical battery deliveries to U.S. military installations, the Rechargeable Battery Association responded in writing to PHMSA.
'A ban on such shipments would also disrupt distribution of many other products on which U.S. consumers, government agencies and businesses have come to rely,' the trade group said. Its position is that the batteries are safe to transport if properly packaged and handled.
Government officials have said a shipment ban could lead unscrupulous companies to misidentify their cargo on shipping paperwork and labels.
The battery industry urged PHMSA to move quickly to harmonize U.S. battery rules with much more stringent shipping and packaging provisions in place around the world. It also said PHMSA, which is responsible for hazmat rulemakings, and the FAA should more actively enforce existing U.S. regulations.
The two agencies have not seen eye-to-eye in the past on lithium battery standards, contributing to bureaucratic inertia on new rules. PHMSA has been working on the rulemaking for at least two years.
In each case above, the shipments failed to comply with existing hazardous materials regulations, including labeling and packaging requirements, the battery association maintained. 'Similar flaunting of the regulations has been involved in virtually all the lithium ion battery shipping incidents over the last few years,' it wrote.
The trade group rejected ALPA's comparison of the three incidents with the UPS accident three years ago, noting that the NTSB stated the fire was initiated by an unknown source. That doesn't mean batteries weren't the most likely cause of the conflagration.
As for PHMSA, it's ridiculous that an agency can drag its feet so long on such an important safety issue. The DOT's inspector general recently issued a scathing report documenting poor management practices throughout the agency and a lax attitude towards enforcement and working with other modal agencies in the department.
Better rules and enforcement will make the industry safer and clear up uncertainty for shippers and carriers about shipping methods.
Air Cargo Security Alliance reacts to coverage
In my July column (page 36), I wrote about the Air Cargo Security Alliance's attempt to get the Transportation Security Administration to conduct cargo inspections at airports in parallel with its initiative to push cargo screening on passenger planes to shippers.
The group represents about 300 small forwarders and others who worry that the cost of self-screening will put them out of business.
The point of my news analysis was to show that the logical outgrowth of their effort would be to derail the Certified Cargo Screening Program now being implemented to achieve 100 percent screening by 2010. It just seems a political reality that in these tough budgetary times the government isn't going to run two separate screening programs.
In a circular posted on its Web site and distributed by e-mail, the ACSA characterized my analysis as telling the air cargo industry to 'drop dead,' and said that I was calling them a liar for having secondary motives. The tone of the document was much more negative than the letter to the editor from David E. Wirsing, principal of the ACSA, that we ran in the September issue (pages 2-4).
The ACSA is off base in its memo. For one thing, the air cargo industry is broader than the ACSA, and many companies support the TSA program. Secondly, I never said the ACSA was lying in its public statements. I just analyzed the political situation to say that if the association was successful the end result would likely mean the CCSP would be replaced by government security checks and the ACSA wouldn't be unhappy with that outcome.