ALPA Calls for One Level of Safety for Lithium Battery Shipments

Last week, the Air Line Pilots Association, Int’l, urged the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) to adopt more stringent regulations over the air transportation of lithium batteries and align them with current International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) requirements. ALPA’s written comments responded to PHMSA’s recent Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (NPRM) regarding the air transportation of lithium batteries.

In addition, ALPA released a new primer on the safety considerations of air shipments of lithium batteries. The paper details the deficiencies with current dangerous goods regulations in the United States and offers recommendations for how ICAO and PHMSA can implement additional safeguards.

“ALPA has repeatedly raised questions about the safety and the potential fire hazards associated with shipping lithium batteries by air,” said Mark Rogers, director of ALPA’s Dangerous Goods Program. “The danger is increased as lithium battery fires may be difficult to extinguish in the best of circumstances, much less tens of thousands of feet in the air. We strongly believe that the ICAO requirements provide greater safety for pilots and the traveling public.”

The ICAO provisions incorporate new requirements for packages containing more than eight cells or two batteries, including training for the shipper and operator, dangerous goods labels, acceptance checks, preloading and unloading inspections, and inclusion on the information given to the pilot-in-command. Current U.S. regulations allow exceptions for a large number of consumer batteries in a single package, and any number of packages on an airplane. These batteries could be transported without a flight crew ever being aware of the potential risk.

ALPA cites one notable occurrence in September 2010—two United Parcel Service pilots lost their lives when they reported a main-deck fire shortly after takeoff and crashed while trying to return to the airport. On board the plane were 80,000 lithium batteries. Although the investigation continues, the real risks of lithium batteries cannot be ignored.

ALPA also contends that, in addition to simply providing the safest means of transporting these goods, having different and unequal standards of safety could jeopardize the FAA’s ability to enforce compliance—even for international shipments. It could also cause logistical problems for shippers guiding a shipment of lithium batteries through the United States to an international destination.

“We will continue to call for even stricter guidelines for the transportation of lithium batteries that go beyond ICAO’s provisions,” added Capt. Lee Moak, ALPA’s president. “But in the meantime, we recommend that PHMSA immediately withdraw its recent rulemaking and issue a final rule to align with ICAO’s technical instructions for the safe air transport of lithium batteries.”