Stricter ICAO Rules Take Effect for Transporting Lithium Batteries

 - January 7, 2013, 11:45 AM
Cargo carrier UPS has developed a prototype fiber-reinforced plastic container that will help control cargo-hold fires. (Photo: UPS)

Stricter International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) regulations for the bulk shipment of lithium batteries by air took effect on January 1. Smaller quantities and packages of the widely used batteries, which can overheat and catch fire, now stand subject to labeling, packaging and documentation requirements.

Rechargeable lithium ion and non-rechargeable lithium metal batteries with high energy densities power consumer devices ranging from watches and cameras to cellphones and laptop computers. For more than a decade, voluntary controls by industry or ICAO regulations have governed the bulk shipment of lithium batteries. However, impetus for stricter regulations came from two recent accidents involving fires in cargo aircraft transporting quantities of lithium batteries: the crash of an Asiana Airlines 747-400 off Jeju Island, South Korea, in July 2011, and of a UPS 747-400 in September 2010 in Dubai.

The new requirements for air shipment of lithium batteries are stricter than regulations in place in most ICAO member states since 2009, according to the National Electrical Manufacturers Association. In general, they limit lithium ion batteries with watt-hour (Wh) ratings up to 100 Wh and lithium metal batteries with up to 2 grams of lithium content to two batteries per package.

Legislation passed in the U.S. last February to reauthorize the Federal Aviation Administration’s (FAA) budget prohibits its parent agency, the Department of Transportation (DOT), from issuing any new regulation on the transport of lithium batteries judged stricter than the global ICAO requirements. In a notice issued on December 21, the DOT’s Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) said it seeks additional comment on the ICAO rules and whether to mandate them for domestic shipments of lithium batteries or to let shippers and carriers choose between the ICAO rules and existing U.S. hazardous materials regulations. The rules apply mainly to all-cargo aircraft; the PHMSA banned the shipment of lithium metal batteries on passenger aircraft in 2004.

Efforts continue to better protect aircraft cargo holds from fires caused by hazardous materials. On November 28, the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board issued new recommendations to contain in-flight fires, calling the current regulations inadequate. The board cited the Dubai and South Korea crashes and a third fire-related accident in February 2006 that substantially damaged a UPS DC-8 at Philadelphia International Airport. UPS has developed a fire-suppression system using a prototype “unit load device,” a fiber-reinforced plastic container, potassium aerosol powder dispensers and fire containment covers for cargo pallets.