US DOT issues overdue safety rule for lithium battery transport


Aviation accidents and incidents involving the transportation of lithium batteries have long been a subject of grave concern for pilots and other industry stakeholders. While US shippers and carriers of hazardous materials have been free to follow ICAO’s stricter regulations governing the transport of these highly flammable batteries, the ICAO guidance was not harmonized with US regulations.

That is, until today.

In what the Air Line Pilots Association (ALPA) is calling an “overdue” action, the US Department of Transportation issued a final rule aimed at providing an additional layer of protection to the shipment of lithium batteries, which are used to power mobile phones and laptops. The department’s Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) developed the rule in close coordination with the FAA, and some of the changes focus specifically on air.

The rule will do the following:

  • Enhance packaging and hazard communication requirements for lithium batteries transported by air;
  • Replace equivalent lithium content with Watt-hours for lithium ion cells and batteries;
  • Adopt separate shipping descriptions for lithium metal batteries and lithium ion batteries;
  • Revise provisions for the transport of small and medium lithium cells and batteries including cells and batteries packed with, or contained in, equipment;
  • Revise the requirements for the transport of lithium batteries for disposal or recycling;
  • Harmonize the provisions for the transport of low production and prototype lithium cells and batteries with the ICAO Technical Instructions and the International Maritime Dangerous Goods Code; and
  • Adopt new provisions for the transport of damaged, defective, and recalled lithium batteries.

The DOT says PHMSA is not adopting a proposal to limit the locations on board aircraft where shipments of lithium cells and batteries could be stowed. It explains that the provisions of the rule “are consistent” with the FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012, which “prohibits DOT from issuing or enforcing any regulation or other requirement regarding the air transportation of lithium cells or batteries if the requirement is more stringent than the requirements of the ICAO Technical Instructions”.

Voluntary compliance of the rule is encouraged upon publication in the federal registry, it says. However mandatory compliance is effective six months after publication.

There is no shortage of examples of incidents and accidents suspected of being related to the carriage of lithium batteries (and you can find a list of accidents at the bottom of this post). On 3 September 2010, for instance, a McDonnell Douglas DC-8 landed at Philadelphia International Airport after the crew received a cargo smoke indication in the cockpit during the landing approach. The flight crew evacuated the aircraft after landing and sustained minor injuries, and the aircraft and most of the cargo were destroyed by fire after landing, says ALPA. Although the source of the fire was never conclusively determined, extensive fire damage was found in cargo compartments known to have held equipment containing lithium batteries. The National Transportation Safety Board subsequently issued six safety recommendations addressing the transportation of lithium batteries by air.

ALPA, which has long called for US standards to be harmonized with ICAO, gave a cautious endorsement to the DOT’s rule today, saying in a statement that while it is “conducting a detailed review of the new regulations, PHMSA’s action today is recognition of the serious risk that unregulated shipments of lithium batteries pose to all who depend on air transportation”.

Separately, it should be noted that lithium battery-related fires in aircraft cabins are a point of heightened concern as more and more passengers carry personal electronic devices on board aircraft. The DOT has long-standing rules on the amount of batteries allowed in carry-on luggage. However, during the recent IATA cabin operations safety conference in Madrid, Emirates safety manager, cabin Anabel Carter sounded the alarm about the dangers of PED battery fires in aircraft cabins.

Carter also intimated that in-seat power is being put through some serious stress tests as some premium passengers charge as many as three personal electronic devices at a time. She suggested that “over-charging may lead to overheating” so crew “need to be able to react in time to the consequences”, including isolating power until it can be determined it’s free of faults. We’re eager to learn how in-seat power providers are managing this growing threat.

Meanwhile, Carter was not the only airline executive to raise a red flag about heightened hazards related to electrical in the cabin. Air New Zealand manager cabin operations Shane Constable said, “Two thirds of fires on Boeing aircraft are electrical related. Hidden fires are not readily accessible and may be difficult to locate … [With] enhanced IFE and electrical seats, the complexity on aircraft grows and [there is] an increased probability of wiring-related problems and potential [for] fire. A key point for the cabin environment is that a lot of wires are very difficult to access.”