In an effort to enhance air safety, the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) announced on Wednesday that it will be issuing new rules barring airlines from transporting potentially dangerous lithium ion cells and batteries as cargo on passenger aircraft and setting forth new requirements for transporting them on cargo planes.
The DOT’s Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA), in cooperation with the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), issued the Interim Final Rule (IFR) on February 27 to revise Hazardous Material Regulations for the air transport of lithium ion cells and batteries. The new IFR prohibits the transport of lithium ion cells and batteries as cargo on all passenger aircraft and requires that all lithium ion cells and batteries shipped on cargo-only planes are charged not more than a 30 percent state of charge and limits the use of alternative provisions for small lithium cells or batteries to one package per consignment.
The PHMSA unveiled the new rule after Congress ordered the agency to immediately adopt new regulations by early 2019. Many large U.S. carriers are already voluntarily complying with similar requirements adopted by the International Civil Aviation Organization (the U.N.’s aviation agency) which took effect in 2016.
PHMSA said it was finalizing the rules on an expedited basis in order to address “an immediate safety hazard” after considering the findings of lithium battery research conducted by the FAA. The research indicated that under certain conditions lithium batteries could result in adverse events, such as smoke and fire, which could impair the safe operation of the aircraft. Specifically, they found that “in a lithium battery fire, flammable gases could collect, ignite and ultimately exceed the capabilities of the aircraft’s fire suppression system” and lead to a catastrophic failure.
“This rule will strengthen safety for the traveling public by addressing the unique challenges lithium batteries pose in transportation,” said U.S. Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao.
PHMSA identified 39 air cargo incidents between 2010 and 2016 in which lithium batteries were involved, 13 of which resulted in smoke, fire, extreme heat or explosions. While many of these incidents were discovered at an air cargo sort facility either before or after a flight, in one instance packages of lithium ion cells were found smoldering in an aircraft unit load device during unloading, suggesting the initial thermal runaway likely occurred while the shipment was on the aircraft. The agency also noted three aircraft accidents in 2007, 2010, and 2011 where lithium ion batteries transported as cargo were suspected as either the cause or a factor that increased the severity of the fire. Those accidents resulted in the complete loss of all three aircraft and four lives.
These amendments will predominately affect air carriers and shippers who transport lithium ion cells and batteries via aircraft. The rules will not restrict passengers or crew members from bringing electronic devices or personal items containing lithium cells or batteries aboard aircraft. The PHMSA will also allow limited exceptions for up to two lithium batteries for medical devices which are transported on passenger aircraft and a state of charge higher than 30 percent for remote areas like Alaska that do not have regular cargo service.
The mission of the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) is to protect people and the environment by advancing the safe transportation of energy and other hazardous materials that are essential to our daily lives. PHMSA develops and enforces regulations for the safe operation of the nation’s 2.7 million-mile pipeline transportation system and the nearly one million daily shipments of hazardous materials by land, sea, and air. Please visit phmsa.dot.gov for more information.