Regulators are considering an about-face that would exempt U.S. cargo airlines from new international restrictions on shipping lithium batteries, which have been linked to three fires that destroyed aircraft.
Groups representing airlines, pilots and electronic-device makers said they were surprised by the notice, which will be filed Jan. 7 in the Federal Register. They didn’t oppose the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration’s proposal last year to harmonize U.S. rules with the international standard.
“We thought everything was set for a final rule at the end of December,” George Kerchner, executive director of the Rechargeable Battery Association, said in an interview. The organization is a Washington-based trade group representing companies such as Panasonic Corp. and General Motors Co.
“We are a little disappointed that this is the direction they are going because it slows down the whole harmonization process,” Kerchner said.
In 2010, the U.S. regulator proposed rules more restrictive than the United Nations’ International Civil Aviation Organization’s standards, which took effect Jan. 1.
Congress blocked the proposed rules, inserting a provision in a bill to prohibit standards stricter than the UN’s, after they were opposed by industry trade groups and firms such as Apple Inc. The agency then proposed in April 2012 to adopt the international rules and received no opposition, according to government records.
Battery shippers and airlines can voluntarily adopt the international standards, Jeannie Layson, a spokeswoman for the hazardous materials regulator, said in an e-mail statement. The agency determined it needed additional feedback before acting, Layson said. In its notice, PHMSA posed a series of questions, such as whether keeping existing requirements would cause confusion.
Lithium batteries, which power electronic devices including laptop computers and smartphones, can be shipped on U.S. cargo planes with few restrictions today.
The U.S. Federal Aviation Administration has barred passenger planes from transporting non-rechargeable lithium batteries since 2004 because, if they catch fire, flames can’t be stopped by cargo-compartment extinguishers.
The UN rules adopted Jan. 1 require all but the smallest lithium shipments to be labeled as hazardous and that cargo haulers, such as FedEx Corp. and United Parcel Service Inc., train employees on handling the batteries. Current U.S. regulations don’t have such requirements.
American carriers would be at higher risk than foreign cargo carriers if allowed to follow U.S. rules, said Mark Rogers, who leads hazardous-materials-handling issues for the Air Line Pilots Association union.
“We would have a situation where domestically we could fly around with thousands of lithium batteries on board without the pilots even being aware of their presence,” Rogers said in an interview. “They are backing off without any reasonable opposition” to the international standards. ALPA represents more than 50,000 pilots in North America.
The agency’s notice undercuts cargo safety, Robert Travis, president of the Independent Pilots Association, which represents UPS’s pilots, said in an e-mailed statement.
“Its new plan to allow air carriers to pick and choose their own regulation on the domestic carriage of lithium cells and batteries is a bad idea,” he said.
Cargo carriers also favor adopting the tougher standard so they don’t have to train their staffs to adhere to different rules around the world, Stephen Alterman, president of the Cargo Airline Association, said in an interview. In addition to FedEx and UPS, the Washington-based group represents Atlas Air Worldwide Holdings Inc. and Air Transport Services Group Inc.’s ABX Air.
While ALPA was disappointed that ICAO’s rules didn’t go further, it views the international standards as better than the current U.S. regulations, Rogers said. ALPA represents pilots at FedEx.
Three pilots on a UPS Boeing Co. DC-8 were forced to land with a fire burning on Feb. 7, 2006, in 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 caught fire 22 minutes after it left Dubai on Sept. 3, 2010, and crashed as pilots attempted to return. Both pilots died. The jet was was carrying more than 81,000 lithium batteries, according to a preliminary report by the General Civil Aviation Authority of the United Arab Emirates.
An Asiana Airlines Inc. 747-400 went down into the China Sea on July 28, 2011, after pilots reported a cargo fire. Both pilots died. It also was carrying a large quantity of batteries, according to an NTSB recommendation Nov. 28 calling for enhanced fire protections.