After years of debate between government and industry, the U.S. Congress has decided how much authority the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has in issuing lithium battery transport regulation beyond the international standard. In short, not much.
The U.S. Congress passed a $63-billion Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) bill this month, which funds the agency for four years and puts an end (at least temporarily) to several continuous aviation issues. One of these is how best to safely transport lithium batteries. The reauthorization measure, which President Obama signed into law on Tuesday, states:
“The Secretary of Transportation…may not issue or enforce any regulation or other requirement regarding the transportation by aircraft of lithium metal cells or batteries or lithium ion cells or batteries…if the requirement is more stringent than the requirements of the International Civil Aviation Organization Technical (ICAO) Technical Instructions.”
Congress’ decision comes just as the ICAO Dangerous Goods Panel approved changes to the ICAO Technical Instructions on transporting lithium batteries, evidence that there is plenty of international regulation to go around. Yet, the decision to limit stricter FAA regulations on transporting lithium batteries is important for an air cargo industry that has to date been highly effective in self-regulating the transport of this potentially (but infrequently) dangerous cargo.
Regulations that differ by country can complicate the international transport of cargo. Focusing on an international standard allows for harmonization of lithium battery transport rules, meaning shippers, forwarders, carriers and government stakeholders can work towards a common, internationally recognized standard. This spells benefits for safety and efficiency. Despite this, the FAA seems certain lithium batteries have contributed to in-flight disasters, with lithium batteries catching fire.
Others, however, are not convinced.
A Proven Risk?
The Rechargeable Battery Association (PRBA) sent a letter to the FAA regarding a September 2011 FAA study – Freighter Airplane Cargo Fire Risk Model – on the risks of transporting lithium batteries. According to PRBA Executive Direction George A. Kerchner, the FAA study is inaccurate and the conclusions unproven. The study considers five plane incidents since 1958 where lithium batteries were on board. Wrote Kerchner:
“We know that batteries were onboard aircraft in two of these incidents. The FAA assumes that batteries caused those two incidents, and then develops the risk model from this basis. But no facts are presented that indicate any involvement of batteries in the incidents.”
Identifying the precise cause of a crash can be difficult, and the verdict is still out on exactly what caused the failure on a UPS plane in Dubai in 2010. Kerchner noted of that incident: “There is nothing in the United Arab Emirates General Civil Aviation Authority reports that indicates bulk shipments of lithium batteries were ‘likely contributors’ to the accident,” as the FAA study assumes.
“Everyone agrees improperly packaged lithium ion batteries should not be shipped as cargo,” Kerchner said in a statement. “This safety goal can best be achieved by rigorous enforcement that will ensure compliance with existing international battery regulations.” (Emphasis added)
Even Congress seemed to concur that the threats posed by lithium batteries have not been firmly established, adding an exception to its limit on FAA regulations. The bill states that if the FAA receives a credible report where lithium batteries, transported under ICAO standards, “substantially contributed to the initiation or propagation of an onboard fire,” the FAA can issue emergency regulation. This caveat, however, suggests the ICAO standards have been sufficient to this point, undermining the FAA belief that batteries should be more tightly regulated.
To be sure, governments have a stake in how lithium batteries should be shipped, charged as they are with safeguarding national assets, commerce and public safety. But aviation companies and organizations have as much, if not more, of a stake in how best to safely move lithium batteries around the world. Their business depends on a consistent track record of speed and safety. These batteries can be dangerous if not handled correctly, and that is why industry relies on the International Air Transport Association’s (IATA) guidelines for working with lithium batteries, the International Civil Aviation Organization’s (ICAO) technical instructions for transporting lithium batteries, and the many internal procedures carriers and forwarders use for protecting this cargo.
The air cargo industry spends a lot of time contemplating and taking steps to avoid risk. Mistakes can cost product, business and most importantly, lives. That’s why the industry has been so diligent in safely transporting lithium batteries. Safety is in everyone’s best interest, and while the FAA bill language on regulation is welcome, the air cargo industry will continue its proven-effective approach of self-regulation.