The U.S. Department of Transportation is seeking comments on whether to align rules restricting lithium-battery shipments by air with United Nations standards, after companies including Apple Inc. (AAPL:US) and Samsung Electronics Co. opposed stricter U.S. regulation.
Lithium batteries, used in laptop computers, mobile phones and hearing aids, can spontaneously combust and were part of the cargo aboard two U.S. jets destroyed in fires since 2006, including one that crashed after leaving Dubai. UN rules approved in February would require airlines like FedEx Corp. (FDX:US) and United Parcel Service Inc. (UPS:US) to inspect shipments before loading and after removal.
The Transportation Department’s Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration proposed rules in January 2010 that were blocked by the U.S. House after industry groups said they would cost $1.1 billion to implement. Congress passed legislation in February preventing U.S. regulators from imposing rules stricter than those adopted by the UN’s International Civil Aviation Organization.
The department sought public comment on “harmonizing” its rules with the UN’s in a notice posted yesterday on the Federal Register’s website.
“The ICAO recently adopted lithium battery provisions that will become effective on Jan. 1, 2013, and we are asking the public to provide additional comments on the potential impact of adopting these ICAO standards,” Jeannie Layson, director for governmental, international and public affairs for the pipeline safety agency, said in a statement.
The UN rules are supported by Airlines for America, the main trade group for U.S. airlines, and the Rechargeable Battery Association which represents battery and device makers including Apple, Samsung and Motorola Mobility Holdings Inc.
The U.S. government should “align its regulations with the new standards recently adopted by ICAO,” Steve Lott, a spokesman for Washington-based Airlines for America, said in an e-mailed statement.
Without new safety rules, there would be the risk that fires from lithium batteries would destroy a U.S.-registered cargo jet as often as every two years, according to a study commissioned by U.S. and Canadian aviation regulators.
Under the ICAO standards, pilots would have to be notified when lithium batteries are on a flight, shipments would have to be labeled as hazardous materials, and employees would need to be trained in handling such cargo, according to George Kerchner, executive director of the Washington-based battery trade group.
The new standards would exempt shipments of two or fewer batteries as well as items that have installed batteries.
A UPS Boeing 747-400 that caught fire shortly after it left Dubai on Sept. 3, 2010, was carrying more than 81,000 lithium batteries, according to a preliminary report by the General Civil Aviation Authority of the United Arab Emirates. The jet crashed at a military base as pilots tried to make an emergency landing. Both pilots died.
Three UPS pilots escaped on Feb. 7, 2006, after fire broke out on a Boeing DC-8 as it approached Philadelphia, a U.S. National Transportation Safety Board investigation found. The jet was carrying “numerous” lithium batteries in computers and other products, according to the NTSB. The investigation, which focused on batteries, was unable to determine the cause of the fire.
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