Pilots say FAA bill is 'unsafe' without lithium battery ban

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The union that represents pilots in Washington said Wednesday that a proposed funding bill for the Federal Aviation Administration is "unsafe" because it does not include a ban on shipping lithium ion batteries by air. 

Most major airlines are already banning passengers from carrying lithium batteries in their luggage after warnings from receiving federal regulators, but aviation groups have been pushing Congress to enact a ban that would have also covered cargo shipments of the devices. 

The Federal Aviation Administration measure unveiled by the House Transportation Committee does not include a ban on air shipments lithium ion batteries, despite the pressure from aviation groups.

Lawmakers said they are deferring to international groups that monitor flights like International Civil Aviation Organization, who have signaled that they are moving close to enacting a worldwide ban on shipping lithium batteries by air. 

The Air Line Pilots Association said Wednesday that lawmakers should have enacted a ban of their own to show the U.S. is serious about preventing fires  on-board planes that have been associated with the lithium batteries in recent years. 

“Last week, the international community irrefutably acknowledged existing evidence demonstrating that lithium batteries pose a threat to safe air operations," ALPA President Tim Canoll said in a statement. 

"As a result, they recommended moving forward on the first phase in a long-term plan that allows for the safe transport of lithium batteries," he continued. "However, today’s proposed legislation refuses to recognize the safety risk inherent in the bulk shipment of lithium batteries on passenger and cargo aircraft.” 

Lithium batteries became a topic of concern in aviation circles after a series of incidents involving fires on the Boeing's 787 "Dreamliner" during its 2013 rollout drew attention to problems with transporting the devices on airplanes.

The FAA said in its 2015 notice to airlines that "lithium batteries present a risk of both igniting and fueling fires in aircraft cargo/baggage compartments.

"To reduce the risk of lithium battery fires, the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Hazardous Materials Regulations (HMR), and equivalent International Civil Aviation Organization’s Technical Instructions for the Safe Transport of Dangerous Goods (ICAO TI), prohibit spare lithium batteries from checked baggage (including baggage checked at the gate or on-board the aircraft)," the agency said in its notice. 

Lawmakers on the House Transportation Committee said Wednesday that their proposed FAA bill "establishes a Lithium Ion Battery Safety Advisory Committee to foster collaboration on lithium ion battery safety in air transportation," although it stops short of implementing a total ban.  

The panel said measure also "directs the [transportation] secretary to issue regulations consistent with international technical instructions banning lithium ion batteries as cargo on passenger aircraft." 

The pilots' union said Wednesday that the House GOP proposal does not go fare enough to prevent problems during flights that are caused by air shipments of lithium ion batteries. 

“After months of working with key officials to ensure this crucial legislation focuses on vital safety measures, we are disappointed to see that this bill does not advance aviation safety in our country,” said Canoll. 

The pilots' union added that it has other concerns about the FAA bill that was proposed by House Republicans on Wednesday, including questions about the financing of the GOP proposal to spin off air traffic control from the FAA. 

"As drafted, the bill does not address the serious safety risks presented by the unregulated carriage of lithium batteries," the union said of the proposed FAA bill. 

"It also creates an unfair funding system for the new air traffic organization, and fails to protect access to the cockpit through mandatory physically installed secondary barriers," the union continued. "Instead, the proposed legislation actually degrades safety by undercutting the existing regulations regarding medical certification for general aviation pilots."  

The full text of the proposed FAA bill can be read here

-This story was last updated on Feb. 4 at 9:57 a.m.