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DeFazio Asks DOT to Protect Travelling Public, Push ICAO to Address Lithium Ion Battery Transportation Risks

Apr 24, 2015
Press Release

Washington, D.C. – In a letter to Secretary of Transportation Anthony Foxx, Ranking Member of the Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure Peter DeFazio (D-OR) pressed the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) to address risks associated with the transport of lithium batteries by air at an international aviation working group meeting scheduled for April 27 in Montreal, Canada. The meeting, held by the Dangerous Goods Panel of the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), will analyze a recently released technical working paper that reported “the uncontrollability of lithium battery fires can ultimately negate the capability of current aircraft cargo fire suppression systems, and can lead to a catastrophic failure of the airframe.”

DeFazio cites several recent examples of lithium ion battery related aviation incidents in the last few years, and says the FAA has received more than 150 reports of aviation incidents in the U.S. involving lithium batteries transported as cargo or baggage since 1991. He criticizes ICAO for its failure to take action to address growing concerns.

“Although evidence of the hazards of transporting lithium batteries by air is mounting, ICAO has taken little action. It seems to me that ICAO has spent more time talking about this growing safety hazard than focusing on ways to resolve it before another accident occurs. Overall, I have significant concerns about whether ICAO will ever take appropriate action to address the safety of transporting lithium batteries by air and whether the United States is willing and able, in the absence of international action, to take the necessary steps to ensure aviation and public safety and prevent further loss of life,” wrote DeFazio.

DeFazio goes on to urge DOT to support the International Coordination Council for Aerospace Industries Associations’ (ICCAIA) position that continuing to allow the carriage of lithium batteries by air in today’s transport category aircraft cargo compartments is an unacceptable risk to the air transport industry and the flying public. He says it is equally imperative that DOT urge swift adoption of the ICCAIA’s recommendations to develop and implement appropriate packaging and shipping requirements for safer transportation of lithium batteries as cargo on passenger and cargo aircraft, and for air carriers to refrain from transporting bulk packages of lithium-ion batteries and cells as cargo on passenger aircraft until safer methods of transport are established and followed.

Full text of the letter is below:

The Honorable Anthony Foxx
Secretary
U.S. Department of Transportation
1200 New Jersey Ave. S.E.
Washington, D.C. 20590

Dear Secretary Foxx:

There is now no doubt that bulk shipments of lithium batteries on passenger and cargo aircraft present a serious and incontrovertible hazard to aviation safety—one of the clearest hazards now known. The Dangerous Goods Panel (DGP) of the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) will hold a working group meeting on April 27 in Montreal, Canada, to consider the adoption of measures to address risks associated with the transport of lithium batteries by air, including a technical working paper developed by the International Coordination Council for Aerospace Industries Associations at the request of the DGP. According to the paper, major airframe manufacturers conclude that existing ICAO technical instructions on lithium battery transport “are not able to control or at least to contain a lithium battery fire” and that “existing cargo compartment fire protection systems . . . are unable to suppress or extinguish a fire involving significant quantities of lithium batteries . . .  Therefore, continuing to allow the carriage of lithium batteries within today’s transport category aircraft cargo compartments is an unacceptable risk to the air transport industry” (emphasis added).

he working paper further recounts the fact that testing conducted at the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) Technical Center, which I have evaluated, has shown that “the uncontrollability of lithium battery fires can ultimately negate the capability of current aircraft cargo fire suppression systems, and can lead to a catastrophic failure of the airframe.” Similar reports by the FAA, Airbus, and Boeing have been made in presentations at the last two ICAO International Multidisciplinary Lithium Battery Transport Coordination Meetings. At least five airlines – Delta, United, Virgin America, Cathay Pacific, and Qantas – have since banned the bulk transport of lithium-ion batteries on passenger aircraft.

We are learning more, seemingly every day, about the risks associated with transport by air of lithium batteries, but we have long known generally that lithium batteries are dangerous cargo. In fact, the FAA has received more than 150 reports of aviation incidents in the U.S. involving lithium batteries transported as cargo or baggage since 1991. That list does not include three major aircraft accidents in which lithium battery cargo shipments were apparently instrumental in causing or contributing to catastrophic fires: an Asiana Airlines 747 near South Korea on July 28, 2011, a UPS 747 in Dubai on September 3, 2010, and a UPS DC-8 in Philadelphia on February 7, 2006. Following the UPS accident, the National Transportation Safety Board issued a series of recommendations that the DOT take appropriate measures to protect passengers onboard aircraft transporting lithium batteries, but few of those recommendations have been implemented. Given what we now know, there is no excuse for inaction before more lives are lost.

Although evidence of the hazards of transporting lithium batteries by air is mounting, ICAO has taken little action. It seems to me that ICAO has spent more time talking about this growing safety hazard than focusing on ways to resolve it before another accident occurs. Overall, I have significant concerns about whether ICAO will ever take appropriate action to address the safety of transporting lithium batteries by air and whether the United States is willing and able, in the absence of international action, to take the necessary steps to ensure aviation and public safety and prevent further loss of life.

With respect to the April 27 meeting in Montreal, I strongly urge the Department to support the ICCAIA’s position that continuing to allow the carriage of lithium batteries by air in today’s transport category aircraft cargo compartments is an unacceptable risk to the air transport industry and the flying public. It is equally imperative that the Department urge swift adoption of the ICCAIA’s recommendations to develop and implement appropriate packaging and shipping requirements for safer transportation of lithium batteries as cargo on passenger and cargo aircraft, and for air carriers to refrain from transporting bulk packages of lithium-ion batteries and cells as cargo on passenger aircraft until safer methods of transport are established and followed.

Following the meeting, I request a briefing on what occurred at the meeting by the appropriate Department and modal administration staff, as well as copies of any materials prepared for or presented at the meeting by the United States, DGP panelists, and others.  In particular, I would like to know what actions the United States and other delegations considered at the meeting, what presentations were made, what decisions the DGP made, and what actions the DGP and the United States plan to take to address the risks of transporting lithium batteries by air.

Further, I understand that the Department’s representative on the DGP has retired and that you are considering a replacement. I strongly urge you to retain an FAA official as the United States’ representative on the DGP as well as other ICAO panels. Only the FAA—not the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration—possesses the comprehensive expertise in aviation safety necessary to fully represent U.S. views on the issue and to ensure that further ICAO action will adequately deal with this pressing safety risk.

 

                                                Sincerely,

                                               PETER DeFAZIO
                                               Ranking Member

 

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