Hazardous Materials

Improving Aviation Safety: Safe Air Transport of Lithium Batteries

ALPA has long advocated for improved transport requirements for hazardous materials (hazmat). Shipment of lithium-ion and lithium-metal batteries aboard aircraft is the most pressing hazmat safety issue that the aviation community needs to address. Lithium batteries are more volatile than many goods currently shipped as hazmat; they can self-ignite when damaged, defective, or exposed to a heat source. 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 United States has proactively banned the shipment of lithium-metal batteries (which power flashlights, smoke detectors, and non-rechargeable cameras, for example) on passenger aircraft. Despite the same risk that these batteries pose on cargo aircraft, lithium-metal batteries are still shipped in bulk on all-cargo aircraft.

Lithium-ion (which are typically found in cell phones and personal computers) and lithium-metal batteries have historically been exempt from many federal hazmat regulations, such as the requirement to place a dangerous goods label on the package, the requirement to notify the pilot-in-command of their presence, the requirement that airline personnel perform an acceptance check of the package, or any of the cargo compartment quantity limitations normally applied to hazardous materials.

There is no international prohibition on the shipment of lithium-metal or lithium ion batteries on cargo aircraft.

NTSB Calls for Stronger Lithium Battery Regulations Over Fire Risk

Recent testing has shown the volatility of a lithium battery fire is higher than previously thought. Several U.S. and international passenger carriers have voluntarily banned the shipment of any lithium batteries.

ALPA has been working through the International Civil Aviation Organization’s (ICAO’s) Dangerous Goods Panel to improve international technical instructions for shipment of lithium batteries for more than a decade. In early 2013, ICAO issued provisions that incorporate new requirements for packages containing more than eight cells or two batteries, including training for the shipper and operator, dangerous goods labels, acceptance checks, preloading and unloading inspections, and inclusion on the shipping information given to the pilot-in-command. In late 2014, the United States decided to follow the ICAO standards.  

In early 2016, ICAO temporarily restricted the shipment of lithium ion batteries as cargo on all passenger flights until packaging standards can be developed that provide adequate protection.  ICAO also instituted a 30 percent maximum state of charge restriction on all lithium ion batteries shipped by air, and limiting ‘overpacks’ to only one package. This ‘overpack’ loophole in previous regulations allowed many small packages of batteries to be collected in one shipping container, avoiding dangerous goods declarations and regulations.  

However, current U.S. regulations for domestic operations do not follow these new ICAO restrictions.  ALPA has called upon the Department of Transportation to adopt the new ICAO limitations immediately.

Flight Plan

The United States should provide lithium batteries with the full range of safety protections required for all other dangerous goods transported by air. The United States should adopt more stringent regulations over the air transportation of lithium batteries and urge ICAO to do likewise to make the industry safer.

Download the Lithium Battery White Paper