Airline Industry Wrestles With Lithium Battery Issue

 - September 12, 2011, 9:10 AM
Airline pilots would like to see bulk shipments of lithium batteries better regulated. (Photo: macker54321 - Fotolia)

The FAA proposed a civil penalty against the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) on September 2 for allegedly providing to FedEx a mislabeled box containing lithium batteries, bringing attention to an issue of particular concern to the airline industry.

Improving standards for the bulk shipment of widely used lithium batteries, which have been known to catch fire, stands as one of the safety priorities of the Air Line Pilots Association (ALPA). The association opposes language in the House version of FAA reauthorization legislation that would prohibit regulation of lithium batteries beyond current hazardous materials requirements of the International Civil Aviation Organization. The Air Transport Association (ATA) supports the language, arguing that international regulations should harmonize and that further regulation would prove burdensome. ALPA and ATA have formed a working group to try to reach consensus. Some carriers maintain their own procedures for handling lithium battery shipments.

“We are for a more comprehensive approach,” Delta captain Lee Moak, ALPA president, told AIN. He said quantities of lithium batteries appeared on the cargo manifests of two freighters involved in recent accidents that remain under investigation–an Asiana Airlines 747-400 that crashed off Jeju Island, South Korea, in July, and a UPS 747-400 that crashed in September 2010 in Dubai. “There have been several of these [accidents] over the last few years,” Moak said. “It is a genuine concern, and we are pushing really hard to have proper treatment of lithium batteries.”

A U.S. Department of Transportation rulemaking on shipping lithium batteries now in the works has stalled over the issue of shipping electronic equipment with installed batteries. The electronics industry would like those shipments excluded from the rule. The FAA issued a safety alert for operators last October recommending that bulk battery shipments be identified in shipping documentation and stowed in Class C cargo compartments with smoke detectors and built-in fire-suppression systems. The alert noted findings by the FAA’s Hughes Technical Center that overheating of lithium batteries “has the potential to create thermal runaway, a chain reaction leading to self-heating and release of a battery’s stored energy.”