FAA reauthorization bill pushes for review of lithium-ion battery ban

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The House version of FAA Reauthorization legislation includes language which might help the technology industry address supply chain issues after the ICAO ban on carriage of lithium-ion batteries and lithium-ion powered devices as cargo on commercial aircraft. However, it could also crack open the door to ultimately lifting the ban.

Specifically, section 509 of the bill calls for “cooperative efforts” and training “to ensure that shippers who offer lithium-ion and lithium metal batteries for air transport to or from the United Sates comply with US Hazardous Materials Regulations and ICAO”.

On the surface, this would support the best interest of safety, avoiding non-compliance to requirements for shipment. But the bill also calls for the creation of a “lithium battery air safety advisory committee” comprising representatives of battery manufacturers and manufacturers of products that use large and small lithium-ion and lithium metal batteries, as well as air carriers and representatives of other branches of the federal government “to study the safe air transportation of lithium-ion and lithium metal cells and batteries and the effectiveness and economic and social impacts of the regulation of such transportation”.

The committee would include many parties who would have a financial interest in ensuring a lifting of restrictions on lithium batteries in air transport. It would prepare a report on risks, and the effectiveness of current policy, and the results of the committee’s findings would guide positions taken by the United States on this matter during discussions with ICAO.

The US Secretary of Transportation would also be tasked with “submit[ting] to the Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure of the House of Representatives and the Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation of the Senate an evaluation of current practices for the packaging of lithium-ion batteries and cells for air transportation, including recommendations, if any, to improve the packaging of such batteries and cells for air transportation in a safe, efficient, and cost-effective manner,” within 180 days of passage of the bill.

This provision seems to presume that the risk can somehow be mitigated by better packaging. There has already been extensive study conducted by the FAA over many years, and yet no adequate defense found which can resist the intense fires generated by thermal runaway in the cargo hold. When coupled with other hazardous materials that may be packed in passenger luggage or cargo, a thermal runaway fire can potentially lead to hull loss.

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The bill would also require the US Department of Transportation to ensure that representatives of the industries affected by battery regulation participate in “all panels and working groups of the Dangerous Goods Panel of the International Civil Aviation Organization and any other international test or standard setting organization that considers proposals on the safety or transportation of lithium-ion and lithium metal batteries in which the United States participates”.

But even the best crafted regulations and packaging standards cannot address the additional risks introduced by passengers themselves.

During its Annual General Meeting last week in Sydney, Australia, IATA reported that many passengers are carrying prohibited lithium battery items in their checked baggage, despite warnings not to do so. Power banks and spare batteries pose a particular threat. IATA is launching an awareness campaign to educate consumers about the dangers.

Gilberto López Meyer, SVP safety and flight operations for IATA, said the association was aware of these stipulations in the FAA reauthorization bill. “Yes, we are aware of the discussion,” he said.

IATA is eager to get the word out about the risks of loose lithium-ion battery carriage.

Added López Meyer: “As you are aware, the lithium battery industry is a very big industry in the world with many important countries participating in this market.”

Though IATA would not speculate on the potential passage of the FAA reauthorization legislation as written, López Meyer also said that individual states can have policies which differ from ICAO policies.

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