Pre­vent­ing bat­tery fires on planes hits red tape

Trump freeze on new reg­u­la­tions takes ur­gency out of safety change

The Denver Post - - BUSINESS - By Joan Lowy

wash­ing­ton» A year ago, the U.S. gov­ern­ment was cam­paign­ing for an in­ter­na­tional ban on ship­ments of recharge­able bat­ter­ies on pas­sen­ger planes be­cause the bat­ter­ies can self-ignite, cre­at­ing in­tense fires ca­pa­ble of de­stroy­ing an air­liner.

“The risk is im­me­di­ate and ur­gent,” An­gela Stub­ble­field, a U.S. avi­a­tion of­fi­cial, de­clared then.

That ur­gency has evap­o­rated as safety reg­u­la­tions stall un­der Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump’s push to ease what he sees as red tape hold­ing back the U.S. econ­omy.

The In­ter­na­tional Civil Avi­a­tion Or­ga­ni­za­tion, a U.N. agency that sets global avi­a­tion safety stan­dards, de­cided last year to ban bulk ship­ments of lithium-ion bat­ter­ies on in­ter­na­tional pas­sen­ger flights. On cargo flights, the bat­ter­ies can be charged to no more than 30 per­cent, a level that may re­duce the like­li­hood of fires.

As a re­sult, coun­tries around the world have been adopt­ing the new in­ter­na­tional stan­dard for do­mes­tic flights as well. The Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion also looked to do so, sub­mit­ting rules for pub­li­ca­tion that makes them bind­ing. But after Trump took of­fice on Jan. 20, he signed an ex­ec­u­tive or­der freez­ing the pub­li­ca­tion of new reg­u­la­tions. That means air­lines and cargo op­er­a­tors re­main free to ig­nore the stan­dard for do­mes­tic flights.

The Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion had con­sid­ered the change so ur­gent that it was fast-tracked in the rule­mak­ing process. Trump’s ex­ec­u­tive or­der says ur­gent safety rules can be ex­empted from the freeze, but the new ad­min­is­tra­tion isn’t in­vok­ing that ex­emp­tion for bat­tery ship­ments.

“This is part of our on­go­ing reg­u­la­tory re­view,” the Trans­porta­tion De­part­ment said in a state­ment. “The safe move­ment of haz­ardous ma­te­ri­als re­mains a pri­or­ity. We will pro­vide up­dates as soon as de­ci­sions are made with re­gard to these and other is­sues at hand.” No time frame was given.

Recharge­able bat­ter­ies are used in con­sumer prod­ucts rang­ing from cell­phones and lap­tops to elec­tric cars. Man­u­fac­tur­ers like them be­cause they pack more en­ergy into smaller pack­ages, but the bat­ter­ies can self-ignite if they have a man­u­fac­tur­ing flaw, are dam­aged, ex­posed to ex­ces­sive heat, over­charged or packed too closely to­gether. The fires can burn up to 1,100 de­grees Fahren­heit, close to the melt­ing point of the alu­minum used in air­craft.

Since 2006, three cargo jets have been de­stroyed and four pi­lots killed by in-flight fires that ac­ci­dent in­ves­ti­ga­tors say were ei­ther started by bat­ter­ies or made more se­vere by their prox­im­ity.

Most pas­sen­ger car­ri­ers and some cargo op­er­a­tors are vol­un­tar­ily abid­ing by the in­ter­na­tional stan­dard for their do­mes­tic op­er­a­tions for the time be­ing. Trade as­so­ci­a­tions for the U.S. and in­ter­na­tional air­line in­dus­tries say they sup­port ex­tend­ing the stan­dard to do­mes­tic flights.

But lob­by­ists for the bat­tery in­dus­try, which op­posed the in­ter­na­tional stan­dard when it was adopted last year, are urg­ing ad­min­is­tra­tion of­fi­cials to make changes that would al­low cer­tain bat­ter­ies to con­tinue to be shipped on pas­sen­ger flights. The ICAO stan­dard al­ready al­lows for limited ex­emp­tions, but lob­by­ists are ask­ing for blan­ket ex­emp­tions for med­i­cal-de­vice bat­ter­ies and ship­ments to re­mote lo­ca­tions and other changes.

Ex­tend­ing the in­ter­na­tional ban to do­mes­tic flights is “a mat­ter of life and death,” said Rep. Peter DeFazio, D-Ore., the House trans­porta­tion com­mit­tee’s se­nior Demo­crat and an ad­vo­cate of ban­ning air ship­ments of bat­ter­ies.

“If we don’t start fol­low­ing the ICAO guide­lines and stop stuff­ing gi­ant boxes of lithium bat­ter­ies that are fully charged into pas­sen­ger air­craft, sooner or later we’re go­ing to kill a lot of peo­ple,” he said.

But Bob Richard, a bat­tery in­dus­try lob­by­ist, said peo­ple liv­ing in the Alaskan out­back, for ex­am­ple, might not be able to re­ceive bat­ter­ies for their backup heaters or emer­gency bea­cons if the in­ter­na­tional stan­dard is ex­tended to do­mes­tic flights.

Un­der Trump, “reg­u­la­tors are go­ing to be held more ac­count­able for un­der­stand­ing the im­pacts of their rules,” Richard said.

Bat­tery mak­ers and elec­tron­ics com­pa­nies say the prob­lem is mostly limited to man­u­fac­tur­ers in China who make sub­stan­dard bat­ter­ies and don’t fol­low haz­ardous ma­te­ri­als ship­ping reg­u­la­tions. But a study by Cana­dian safety au­thor­i­ties found that the prob­lem of bat­tery ship­pers not fol­low­ing reg­u­la­tions was wide­spread and not limited to China.

With­out har­mo­niza­tion, the U.S. also can’t en­force the ICAO stan­dard for in­ter­na­tional pas­sen­ger and cargo flights to and from the United States.

Safety con­cerns about recharge­able bat­ter­ies in­creased after FAA tests in 2014 showed gases emit­ted by over­heated bat­ter­ies can build up in cargo con­tain­ers, lead­ing to ex­plo­sions ca­pa­ble of dis­abling air­craft fire sup­pres­sion sys­tems. An or­ga­ni­za­tion rep­re­sent­ing air­craft man­u­fac­tur­ers said in a 2015 state­ment that air­lin­ers aren’t de­signed to with­stand lithium bat­tery fires and that con­tin­u­ing to ac­cept bat­tery ship­ments is “an un­ac­cept­able risk.”

Joseph Kacz­marek, As­so­ci­ated Press file

Fire­fight­ers bat­tle a blaze on­board a UPS cargo plane in 2006 after it made an emer­gency land­ing at Philadel­phia In­ter­na­tional Air­port in Philadel­phia.

A frame from a video shows the re­sults of a 2014 bat­tery test at the FAA’s tech­ni­cal cen­ter in At­lantic City, N.J. FAA

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