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American Shipper

FAA bill addresses air transport of lithium batteries

The Federal Aviation Administration and National Transportation Safety Board took steps this week to improve safety practices and regulations involving lithium batteries carried by airlines.

   The House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee on Thursday limited the Department of Transportation’s ability to restrict the carriage of lithium ion batteries as cargo on aircraft.
   Safety concerns about the flammability of these batteries, used to power devices such as cell phones and laptop computers, has grown in recent years following several incidents during air transport.
   The Republican-controlled T&I Committee approved for consideration by the full House a reauthorization bill for the Federal Aviation Administration. The bill is heavily focused on speeding up development of the NEXTGEN air traffic control system and privatizing the air traffic control system. It also provides more tools for the FAA to regulate unmanned aerial vehicles, commonly referred to as drones.
   Included in the FAA bill is a provision that directs the DOT to issue regulations consistent with international standards banning lithium ion batteries as cargo on passenger aircraft and to establish a lithium ion battery safety advisory committee to foster collaboration on battery safety in air transportation. The language effectively says the DOT cannot to go beyond any standards that may be promulgated by the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) regarding lithium batteries.
   An ICAO committee on Jan. 28 recommended that the organization ban the shipment of lithium ion batteries aboard passenger aircraft.
   During Thursday’s mark-up session, ranking Democrat Peter DeFazio of Oregon complained that the position of House Republicans jeopardizes air safety and gives Chinese battery manufacturers and their U.S. customers “veto power” over the U.S.’s ability to regulate. He suggested that lithium ion batteries should be transported by container vessels instead.
   “I’m a little less concerned about a shipborne fire in a cargo container than I am about lithium battery fires on a long-range aircraft,” he said.
   Earlier this week the FAA and the National Transportation Safety Board raised their own concerns about the transport of lithium batteries by air.
   The FAA issued a safety alert to commercial passenger and cargo airlines, urging them to conduct a safety risk assessment of transporting lithium batteries as cargo. It also issued guidance to its inspectors to help them determine whether airlines have adequately assessed the risk of handling and carrying lithium batteries.
   Lithium batteries can ignite under certain circumstances, such as overheating, and the resulting fires can rapidly spread when many batteries are stored together.
   Experts say current cargo fire suppression systems are not able to control a lithium battery fire. ICAO, as well as manufacturers Boeing and Airbus, have advised airlines about the dangers associated with carrying such batteries as cargo.
   Current hazardous materials rules ban passenger airlines from carrying lithium-metal batteries as cargo. In addition, a number of passenger airlines have voluntarily decided not to carry rechargeable, lithium-ion batteries. But DeFazio said some foreign airlines still carry lithium batteries and interline cargo with U.S. carriers, who may not be aware of the type of cargo received.
   The NTSB called on the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration at DOT to require lithium batteries be physically separated from other flammable hazardous materials stowed on cargo aircraft and to establish maximum loading density requirements that restrict the quantities of lithium batteries and flammable hazmat.
   The recommendations stem from the investigation of the July 2011 in-flight fire and crash of an Asiana Airlines plane in international waters off South Korea. The NTSB participated in the investigation at the request of the South Korean government. South Korean investigators determined that the cause of the accident was a fire that developed around two pallets containing dangerous goods packages, including hybrid-electric vehicle lithium-ion batteries and flammable liquids. They could not find a definitive cause for the fire, but said a contributing factor in the fire’s spread was the proximity of the flammable materials and the lithium-ion batteries in the hold.
   In another well-publicized case, a UPS cargo plane carrying a large load of lithium batteries crashed and burned after taking off from Dubai several years ago.
   The Rechargeable Battery Association has argued for more stringent packaging, state of charge limits, labeling requirements and the development of new lithium-battery performance standards as the best way to ensure cargo safety while also ensuring that batteries critical to U.S. commerce and lifesaving medical devices can be delivered in a timely fashion.

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