Congress must act to ensure the safety of lithium battery shipments by air

Airlines have been making news lately for imposing restrictions on certain items aboard aircraft. An all-out ban on hoverboards and limitations on e-cigarettes in checked luggage are among the latest items to be restricted on passenger flights due to safety concerns. While these two items might sound dramatically different, the reality is that they pose the same problem in-flight: the potential for their lithium battery power source to self-ignite. These batteries pose a safety threat to our aircraft and must be properly regulated.

Many passenger airlines have voluntarily banned bulk shipments of lithium-ion batteries because of the dangers they pose, and we fully support these actions. A single defective battery in the cargo compartment can overheat and cause a runaway fire that becomes too hot for standard fire suppression systems to quell. FAA testing has also shown that these batteries quickly produce tremendous heat and emit thick smoke and flammable gas which can fill an entire plane – including the cockpit – in less than eight minutes. Under pressure, the gasses released in a lithium-battery fire can explode. The voluntary ban does not include bulk shipments of electronic equipment with lithium-ion batteries installed.  

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Despite the known risk, lithium batteries have not been classified as a hazardous material.  As a result, unlike finger nail polish and other common products, these batteries have no special packaging requirements regardless of the number of batteries being shipped. The pilot-in-command, responsible for the safe transport of the aircraft, may not even be informed of the presence of certain types of lithium batteries onboard. This is a gaping hole in our safety regulations and one that Congress must address.

In the recent past, lithium batteries have been cited as the direct cause of at least three airline accidents that involved fires on the aircraft. In 2010, UPS Flight 6 crashed due to a lithium battery fire, killing the two pilots on board. Unless Congress takes action now to reverse an existing law that prohibits the U.S.  Department of Transportation from adequately regulating shipments of lithium batteries by air, another tragic incident could happen at any time.

Bulk shipments of lithium batteries, which are ubiquitous in our daily lives and enable us to connect via cell phones, computers and cars, pose a real threat on airliners.  Until fire suppression systems capable of containing lithium battery fires are developed and installed on commercial aircraft, these battery shipments have no place on board airliners.  As Congress turns its attention to the reauthorization for the Federal Aviation Administration, it must regulate shipments of lithium batteries – lives depend on it.

Canoll is president of the Air Line Pilots Association, Int’l.

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