[As posted on The Hill’s Congress Blog]
With all the challenges facing our aviation system, we’re also having to worry about in-flight fires due to poorly regulated lithium battery transport. Why? Because some members of the House of Representatives want to put profits before safety by blocking needed in-flight battery safety rules as part of the pending aviation safety bill. Anti-government ideology and special interest corporate lobbying trump common sense safety reform. We’ve seen this move before.
Lithium-ion batteries are commonplace in everyday life – they power smartphones, laptops and power tools. Lithium-metal batteries power watches, flashlights and digital cameras. But when they are defective, damaged or exposed to a significant heat source, they can self-ignite. That’s a bad outcome anywhere, but especially at 35,000 feet.
Although these battery fires burn violently, lithium-ion fires can be contained by fire suppression systems when the batteries are limited in number. But the FAA says that lithium-metal battery fires are unresponsive to the extinguishing systems used aboard aircraft.
Lithium metal battery shipments have been banned on all passenger flights but are allowed on cargo aircraft, and both types of lithium batteries remain exempt from most federal hazardous materials transportation regulations. Dry ice and paint, by comparison, (neither of which can self-ignite) are subject to a full scope of safety rules.
A 2010 accident in Dubai killed two pilots during an attempted landing following the outbreak of a cargo fire. While it is still under investigation, the initial accident report indicates that large quantities of lithium batteries were mishandled prior to being carried on-board. After a UPS plane was destroyed by fire in Philadelphia in 2006, the National Transportation Safety Board recommended classifying lithium batteries as hazardous cargo. The FAA Office of Security and Hazardous Materials has reported that there have been at least 118 incidents since 1991 involving lithium batteries that have produced smoke, fire, extreme heat or explosions aboard aircraft.
So when the government proposed updated rules regarding the shipment of lithium batteries, we sort of assumed it was a slam dunk – that is, unless you think poorly regulated fire hazards aboard cargo aircraft is a good idea. It appears as if some politicians do.
This is a no-brainer. Improved packing standards would help prevent damage to shipped batteries. Dangerous goods labels would ensure recognition that shipments have the potential to cause an incident if mishandled. And notification to flight crewmembers would allow them to make more informed decisions when handling an in-flight emergency. These are the reforms some in Congress want to block.
The pressure from the battery, technology and airline lobbies must be intense. Because some members of Congress are saying no to these common-sense precautions, pointing to international standards that have no required notification, no restrictions on quantity and no dangerous goods labeling requirement, among other things. The international standards for transporting lithium batteries by air, which are the current instructions that are followed, are wholly inadequate.
Nobody seems to like the word “regulation” anymore. That is, unless you’re the flight crew transporting hazardous cargo without adequate safety measures in place to protect you. We believe that the public, flight crewmembers, and others involved in the air cargo transportation system deserve protection from a risk that can be mitigated.
Members of Congress should be making safety improvements in an aviation safety bill – not blocking them.
Edward Wytkind is the president of the Transportation Trades Department, AFL-CIO, which represents workers in 32 unions in aviation, rail, transit, trucking, highway, maritime, longshore and related industries. For more information, visit www.ttd.org.