FAA urges airlines to 'reevaluate' lithium battery risks

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The Federal Aviation Administration is urging airlines to "reevaluate" the risk of 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 the FAA said Tuesday that U.S. carriers should reassess whether they can safely handle cargo shipments of the devices. 

"Before operators engage in the transport of lithium ion batteries as cargo on passenger aircraft, or lithium ion or lithium metal batteries on cargo aircraft, be aware that ICAO and major airframe manufacturers (Boeing and Airbus) have recommended that operators perform safety risk assessments in order to establish whether, or how, they can manage the risk associated with the transport of these batteries," the agency said in a safety alert.

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"The FAA strongly supports these recommendations," the alert continued. "The FAA encourages those operators who have previously performed a risk assessment to reevaluate their assessment in light of the further evidence gained through the recent testing of lithium batteries. Operators that have implemented a formal Safety Management System (SMS) should accomplish a Safety Risk Assessment (SRA), in accordance with the Safety Risk Management process in its SMS." 

Federal rules currently prohibit airlines from carrying lithium-metal batteries, but aviation groups have been pushing Congress to also enact a ban on cargo shipments of lithium-ion batteries.

“Transportation authorities around the world look to the Unites States as the leader in aviation safety. However, the 2012 FAA reauthorization contained language, Section 828, which precludes the agency from being able to regulate this issue," the Air Line Pilots Association said in a statement. 

"Today’s Safety Alert for Operators is a prime example of how the FAA must rely on the airlines to voluntarily comply with safe operating practices with respect to lithium battery shipments," the pilots' union continued. "It is imperative that Congress repeal Section 828 and give our country the ability to once again lead the world in advancing aviation safety." 

Electronic and retail groups have defended the current rules on air shipments of lithium ion batteries, saying they "will maintain the principle of harmonization while assuring U.S. regulations are updated to reflect the most recent ICAO actions and, of equal importance, assure more aggressive action to enforce international safety standards.

"What is needed now is tough enforcement of these rules.  The problem is not the carriage of lithium batteries on aircraft, but the proper handling of those products," a group of 12 electronic and retail organizations wrote in a letter to lawmakers on Tuesday.  

"Too many manufacturers and shippers, especially in certain regions of the world, ignore existing labelling and packaging requirements," the groups continued.  "This will continue until enforcement is substantially increased.  Putting effort and resources into enforcement is the appropriate way to address concerns with battery transportation safety." 

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.

An FAA funding bill that is being considered this week in the House "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 aviation funding measure also "directs the [transportation] secretary to issue regulations consistent with international technical instructions banning lithium ion batteries as cargo on passenger aircraft." 

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. 

The FAA said Tuesday that it is encouraging "airlines that previously conducted safety assessments to reevaluate them in light of new evidence from the agency's recent lithium battery fire tests.

The agency said it is "working with operators to ascertain what actions they take in response to the ICAO recommendations and manufacturer publications to eliminate or reduce the risk."  

The full FAA safety alert can be read here

-This story was last updated at 4:00 p.m.