By Alan Levin
Feb. 14 (Bloomberg) -- A United Nations panel is calling for tougher inspections and detailed labeling of air shipments of lithium batteries following two incidents in which aircraft were destroyed when freight shipments burst into flames.
The Dangerous Goods Panel at the UN’s International Civil Aviation Organization agreed Friday to the new standards, said Mark Rogers, who heads hazardous-materials handling issues for the Air Line Pilots Association union.
The action may lead to more stringent U.S. rules for battery shipments. Congress earlier this month passed an aviation bill restricting U.S. regulators from imposing rules stricter than those set by the ICAO. Tighter rules proposed by the Department of Transportation stalled following industry objections that they would lead to higher consumer costs. “I’ve been working on lithium batteries for 10 years and this is the biggest development to date,” said Rogers, who serves on the 19-member ICAO panel.
Without new safety standards, lithium batteries that can spontaneously combust were projected to destroy one U.S.- registered cargo jet every other year, according to a study commissioned by U.S. and Canadian aviation regulators. Shipments of lithium batteries that include those used in mobile phones, tablets and laptop computers have been suspected of contributing to two U.S. cargo-jet accidents since 2006.
The Rechargeable Battery Association, which represents companies such as Apple Inc. and Panasonic Corp., said in an e- mail statement Feb. 13 that the ICAO panel’s recommendations were a “reasonable compromise.”
New Rules ‘Imperative’
The industry group urged the Transportation Department’s Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration to adopt the ICAO standards, according to the statement.
“It is imperative that countries strictly enforce these new regulations that go into effect on January 1, 2013, or the hard work by the ICAO Panel will be for naught,” it said in the statement.
The group previously said the proposed U.S. regulations were too costly and wouldn’t improve safety. The ICAO standards are less strict than the pipeline agency’s proposal.
Lithium batteries for products ranging from hearing aids to laptops can be shipped on cargo planes with few restrictions today.
The U.S. Federal Aviation Administration barred passenger flights from carrying non-rechargeable lithium batteries in 2004 because they if they catch fire, flames cannot be stopped by cargo compartment extinguishers.
Packages containing as much as 66 pounds (30 kilos) of rechargeable lithium-ion batteries can be carried as cargo on passenger flights under U.S. regulations.
Under the proposed ICAO standards, all lithium battery shipments will have to be labeled as hazardous material, Rogers said. Companies that want to ship batteries must train employees on how to handle the battery shipments. Airlines such as United Continental Holdings Inc.’s United Airlines or FedEx Corp. would have to inspect the battery shipments before loading them on a plane and after they are removed, Rogers said. Pilots would also be notified when lithium batteries are loaded on a flight, he said.
The new standard would exempt shipments of two or fewer batteries from the requirements as well as devices that have installed batteries.
The ICAO panel’s recommendation will now be considered by the organization, Stephane Dubois, a spokesman, said by phone. It will become the international standard Jan. 1 if approved, she said.
Three pilots on a United Parcel Service Inc. Boeing Co. DC- 8 barely escaped on Feb. 7, 2006, after fire broke out as they approached Philadelphia, a U.S. National Transportation Safety Board investigation found. The jet contained “numerous” lithium batteries in computers and other devices, according to the NTSB. The investigation, which focused on batteries, was unable to determine the cause of the fire.
A UPS Boeing 747-400 that caught fire 22 minutes after it left Dubai on Sept. 3, 2010, was carrying more than 81,000 lithium batteries, according to a preliminary report by the General Civil Aviation Authority of the United Arab Emirates. The jet crashed at a military base while pilots tried to make an emergency landing. Both pilots died.