Pilots push for domestic ban on battery air shipments

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The union that represents pilots in Washington is pushing for a domestic ban on air shipments of lithium ion and metal batteries that are used to power rechargeable devices after international regulators weighed in on the risks of flying with the devices in cargo areas. 

The International Civil Aviation Organization has moved to ban shipments of most lithium ibatteries by air, which have been linked to fires on commercial and cargo airplanes. 

The ban was approved over the objection of battery makers and other technology groups in Washington. 

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The Air Line Pilots Association (ALPA) said Congress should now enact a ban of its own as lawmakers debate a funding measure for the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). 

"The International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) has recognized the very real threat of transporting lithium batteries and has banned cargo shipments of lithium-metal batteries (which power flashlights, smoke detectors, and non-rechargeable cameras, for example) on passenger aircraft because they are even more volatile than lithium-ion batteries, and FAA testing has shown definitively that lithium-metal fires are unresponsive to typical on-board extinguishing agents," the group wrote in a blog post on its website. 

"However, despite the same risk that these batteries pose on cargo aircraft, inexplicably lithium-metal batteries are still shipped in bulk on all-cargo aircraft," the post continued. 

Most major airlines are already banning passengers from carrying lithium batteries in their luggage after warnings from receiving federal regulators.

Federal rules currently require the FAA to defer to international aviation rules for lithium batteries, which 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. 

Battery makers have protested the effort to convince lawmakers to go further than international regulators on banning the devices completely. 

The Portable Rechargeable Battery Association, the group that lobbies for battery markers in Washington, 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 pilots union is painting a starkly different picture of rechargeable batteries in cargo areas of airplanes sparking potential mid-flight fires. 

"Lithium batteries can self-ignite when damaged, defective, or exposed to a heat source," the ALPA wrote. "They also burn incredibly hot, and FAA testing has shown that fires involving lithium batteries are unresponsive to halon, the traditional extinguishing agent used aboard aircraft." 

The debate over air shipments of lithium batteries comes as lawmakers are debating a broader funding measure for the FAA that has become embroiled in arguments about a controversial plan to separate air traffic control from the agency. 

GOP leaders in the House pulled the plug on the controversial plan to restructure the nation’s air traffic control system on Thursday, casting doubt on the potential for a broad aviation funding package to be approved this year. 

The pilots union said lawmakers should press ahead with a ban on lithium batteries, even if they opt for a short-term measure to temporarily extent the FAA's funding.  

"ALPA has been calling on Congress to provide proper guidance to our regulators to ensure that the U.S. continues to be a world leader on aviation safety," the group wrote.  

"Congress should expeditiously pass legislation to ensure all shipments of lithium batteries, both lithium-metal and lithium-ion, are fully regulated as outlined in dangerous goods standards and regulations, and to require labeling, quantity limits, crew notification, airline acceptance checks, and packaging standards so as to mitigate any risk a fire could pose to passengers, crewmembers, and the aircraft."