Regulators ban lithium ion battery air shipments

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The International Civil Aviation Organization is banning cargo shipments of lithium ion batteries by air, over the objection of battery makers and other technology groups in Washington. 

The group's Air Navigation Commission said the devices will be "forbidden, on an interim basis, as cargo on passenger aircraft," beginning on April 1. 

The group said "the prohibition does not apply to lithium ion batteries packed with equipment or lithium ion batteries contained in equipment," however. 

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Transportation Department officials in the Obama administration said they are glad the international aviation group is moving to ban the battery shipments, even if the prohibition is only being enacted on an interim basis. 

"The U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) supports the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) Council’s decision to prohibit the carriage of lithium ion batteries as cargo onboard passenger aircraft until safer methods of transport are developed," Transportation Department spokeswoman Namrata Kolachalam said in an email to reporters. 

"The U.S. DOT — including the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) — agree this is a necessary action to protect passengers, crews, and aircraft from the current risk to aviation safety," she continued. "The U.S. Delegation to the October 2015 ICAO Dangerous Good Panel meeting supported a proposal to prohibit the carriage of lithium ion batteries as cargo onboard passenger aircraft."

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

Federal rules currently require the FAA to defer to international aviation rules for lithium batteries, which have been linked to fires on commercial and cargo airplanes.

The group that lobbies for battery markers in Washington, PRBA–The Rechargeable Battery Association, said the "decision by the ICAO Council was not unexpected," although its industry strongly disagrees with the regulators' conclusions. 

"Our members are preparing to comply with these new regulations even with the extremely tight deadline," the group said in a statement. "However, we are concerned about the significant disruption in the logistics supply chain, especially for lithium ion batteries in lifesaving medical devices that often need to be shipped on passenger aircraft to remote locations not served by cargo aircraft." 

Aviation groups in Washington have pushed for the FAA to enact a ban on lithium ion battery air shipments, independent of the international aviation group's decision this week. 

The union that represents pilots in Washington said the ICAO should also push forward with a permanent ban on lithium battery shipments. 

“We are pleased that ICAO supports ALPA’s long-held position that the shipment of lithium-ion batteries by air poses a significant safety risk on passenger flights, but more needs to be done to address the situation of bulk shipments of lithium-metal and lithium-ion batteries on cargo aircraft," the Air Line Pilots Association said in a statement. 

"U.S. cargo airlines haul the bulk of lithium batteries to North America—and the important ICAO dangerous goods safe transport requirements are exempted from these bulk shipments," the pilots' union continued. "This is where the safety risk remains." 

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. The fires drew attention to problems with transporting the batteries 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." 

The battery group said the FAA's testing has shown that the risk of fires from lithium ion batteries can be diminished if the devices are not fully charged before they are shipped. 

"It is unfortunate that the recent decisions made by the ICAO Council and the Air Navigation Commission did not factor in the most recent U.S. Federal Aviation Administration test data on lithium ion batteries," the group said. 

"The FAA data conclusively demonstrated that the 30 percent state of charge limitation on lithium ion batteries adopted by the Dangerous Goods Panel and scheduled to take effect on April 1 prevents propagation between lithium ion batteries in packaging and eliminates the concerns regarding the release of flammable gases," the group continued. 

The funding bill for the FAA that is being considered in the House "establishes a Lithium Ion Battery Safety Advisory Committee to foster collaboration on lithium ion battery safety in air transportation," although it stopped short of implementing a total ban like the international aviation group has now enacted.  

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." 

Updated with new information at 2:51 p.m.