ALPA Welcomes U.S. Call for Lithium Battery Shipment Ban on Passenger Airliners

The Federal Aviation Administration’s (FAA) recent announcement that it will support an interim ban on all cargo shipments of lithium batteries on passenger airliners at an upcoming International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) meeting is promising news, but ALPA urges the FAA to strongly advocate its position at ICAO’s Dangerous Goods Panel, which is slated to meet later this month. Moreover, the United States must go further by fully regulating lithium battery shipment by air and implementing packaging restrictions and quantity limits on passenger and all-cargo aircraft.

Currently, lithium-ion batteries can be carried in all quantities as cargo on passenger and all-cargo flights. In its draft comment summary prepared for the ICAO Dangerous Goods Panel Twenty-Fifth Meeting to be held October 19–30 in Montreal, the U.S. government states, “At this time, we feel it is necessary to support an interim prohibition on the carriage of lithium ion-batteries as cargo on passenger aircraft to ensure that the risk is mitigated while we continue to aggressively pursue development and implementation of the performance-based standard for air transport.” The FAA’s position came in response to recommendations submitted by First Officer Mark Rogers, ALPA’s former director of the Dangerous Goods Program and current IFALPA Dangerous Goods Committee chairman and ICAO Dangerous Goods Panel member.

Two categories of lithium batteries create cause for aviation safety concern as cargo shipments—lithium-metal and lithium-ion. Lithium-metal batteries are usually nonrechargeable and power items such as cameras, watches, and smoke detectors. The battery contains metallic lithium. If a fire occurs on board an aircraft, the burning metal does not respond to suppression measures.

Generally rechargeable, lithium-ion batteries are found in cell phones, MP3 players, and laptop computers. If damaged, exposed to high temperatures, or subjected to a short circuit, lithium-ion batteries can ignite and cause “thermal runaway”––a fire that spreads rapidly from cell to cell in cargo pallets that can contain tens of thousands of batteries. As lithium-ion cells are heated, flammable vapors are vented and can accumulate in an enclosed space such as an aircraft cargo compartment, setting the stage for an explosion.

Lithium-metal batteries are banned worldwide from being shipped as cargo on passenger airliners. Despite the fact that these batteries pose the same risk regardless of the type of aircraft that transports them, lithium-metal batteries are permitted to be shipped in unrestricted quantities on all-cargo airliners. Capt. Scott Schwartz, ALPA’s director of the Dangerous Goods Program, is helping to lead our union’s efforts in continuing to advance one level of safety in all flight operations.

While ALPA is encouraged by FAA’s support of an interim ban on the shipment of lithium-ion batteries as cargo on passenger airliners while standards are developed, Congress must give the DOT the authority to fully regulate all lithium batteries, including those carried aboard all-cargo aircraft.

 A full set of regulations for the safe shipment of lithium batteries by air will help the United States lead the global industry by establishing standards that can be adopted worldwide. More importantly, passengers, crew, and cargo will be protected from this pressing and preventable safety risk.

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Categories: Advocacy, Safety, International