Push to avert plane battery fires stalls

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.

Today, 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 economy.

The International Civil Aviation Organization, a UN 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 per cent, 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 provided.

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 construction.

Since 2006, three cargo jets have been destroyed and four pilots killed by in-flight fires that 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, as well as the Air Line Pilots Association, 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 UN agency 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.

The position of U.S. negotiators last year was that medical-device batteries were no less dangerous than other kinds.

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. “When something is this critical that it will take down an airplane, voluntary compliance with a non-existent rule is not adequate.”

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. “I think that will cause agencies to take a closer look at the implications.”

Battery makers and electronics companies say the problem is mostly limited to manufacturers in China that make substandard batteries and don’t follow hazardous materials shipping regulations. They say greater enforcement of the previous, less stringent shipping rules is the better solution. But a study by Canadian safety authorities found that the problem of battery shippers not following regulations was widespread and not limited to China.

Congress directed the Transportation Department last year to adopt the international standard for domestic flights. But it’s not uncommon for federal agencies to ignore congressional directives or delay compliance, especially if they disagree with them.

Without harmonization, the U.S. also can’t enforce the UN agency standard for international passenger and cargo flights to and from the United States. The U.S. is the world’s largest aviation market.

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 2015 that airliners aren’t designed to withstand lithium battery fires and continuing to accept battery shipments is “an unacceptable risk.”

Just Posted

WATCH: Sheraton Celebrity Dance Off 2018 dancers revealed

In partnership with 2019 Canada Winter Games

Local haunted house offers a chilling Halloween experience

Chad and Jarita Carlson’s annual venture also supports the Lacombe Food Bank

Local church welcomes LGBTQ community

Gaetz Memorial United Church declares itself an Affirming Ministry

At mid-mandate and with extra cash, Liberals to chart fiscal course toward 2019

OTTAWA — The Trudeau government, right at the midpoint of its mandate,… Continue reading

Voter turnout down in this election

The voter turnout was estimated to be about 17 per cent, down from previous election

WATCH: A magical Harry Potter weekend in downtown Red Deer

Wizards, witches and muggles are flocking to downtown Red Deer to celebrate… Continue reading

Jason Kenney will be in Red Deer on Monday

The UCP candidate is hosting a series of town hall

Sylvan’s talent on display for fundraising show

Sylvan Lake Refugee Project is hosting Sylvan’s Got Talent Nov. 3

B.C. ice rink where 3 people died remains closed due to safety concerns

FERNIE, B.C. — Residents who were forced from their homes because of… Continue reading

Trudeau condemns appointment of Mugabe as WHO ambassador

EDMONTON — Prime Minister Justin Trudeau called the appointment of Zimbabwe President… Continue reading

Friday Oct. 21: Winning Lotto Numbers

Friday, October 20, 2017 LOTTO MAX Winning Numbers 1 4 12 27… Continue reading

New northbound Hwy 2 lanes at Gaetz Avenue to open this Sunday

Drivers heading north through Red Deer on Hwy 2 will have a… Continue reading

Sockey Night at Saturday’s Rebels game

United Way Central Alberta is determined to provide warm feet for all… Continue reading

Canadian planet hunter seeking alien life

‘The shifting line of what is crazy’ says Toronto-born astrophysicist

Most Read


Five-day delivery plus unlimited digital access for $185 for 260 issues (must live in delivery area to qualify) Unlimited Digital Access 99 cents for the first four weeks and then only $15 per month Five-day delivery plus unlimited digital access for $15 a month