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Pilots Association Calls for One Level of Safety for Lithium Battery Shipments
By Steve Hall

March 8, 2013 - The Air Line Pilots Association, Int’l (ALPA) 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’s (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 on 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, but 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.



On February 7, 2006, a United Parcel Service Company flight 1307, a McDonnell Douglas DC-8-71F, N748UP, landed at its destination airport, Philadelphia International Airport, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, after a cargo smoke indication in the cockpit. The captain, first officer, and flight engineer evacuated the airplane after landing. The flight crewmembers sustained minor injuries, and the airplane and most of the cargo were destroyed by fire after landing.

The National Transportation Safety Board determined the probable cause of this accident to be an in-flight cargo fire mostly likely caused by lithium batteries. Contributing to the loss of the aircraft were the inadequate certification test requirements for smoke and fire detection systems and the lack of an on-board fire suppression system. The NTSB concluded that flight crews on cargo-only aircraft remain at risk from in-flight fires involving both primary and secondary lithium batteries.

The NTSB in this case recommended that aircraft operators implement measures to reduce the risk of primary lithium batteries becoming involved in fires on cargo-only aircraft, such as transporting such batteries in fire resistant containers and/or in restricted quantities at any single location on the aircraft.  

The NTSB recommended that carriers analyze the causes of all thermal failures and fires involving secondary and primary lithium batteries and, based on this analysis, take appropriate action to mitigate any risks determined to be posed by transporting lithium batteries, including those contained in or packed with equipment, on board cargo and passenger aircraft as cargo; checked baggage; or carry-on items. 

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.”
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