Legislation Introduced to Give FAA Power to Ban Potentially Dangerous Lithium-ion Battery Shipments

February 10, 2016

WASHINGTON  – U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.), the ranking member of the Senate Commerce Committee, filed legislation today giving the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) the power to ban bulk shipments of potentially deadly lithium-ion batteries from passenger airliners.

Specifically,  Nelson’s bill would repeal a ban Congress enacted in 2012 prohibiting the FAA from imposing restrictions on transporting lithium-ion batteries that exceed those recommended by the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO).  The legislation also creates a task force comprised of the Department of Transportation, Consumer Product Safety Commission and the National Institute of Standards and Technology to promote research and new standards for the safe manufacture, use, or transportation of lithium-based batteries.  Nelson said he hopes to include the measure in the FAA reauthorization bill.

Nelson filed the bill on the same day the U.S. House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee is holding a hearing on its proposal to authorize funding for the FAA.   Banning cargo shipments of lithium-ion batteries, along with taking air traffic control operations away from the FAA, are among several contentious issues facing lawmakers as deliberations begin in both chambers to reauthorize the agency.  The current version of the House bill keeps intact the prohibition on any additional FAA lithium-ion battery regulations.

“If FAA testing has found that fires or explosions caused by lithium-ion batteries can lead to a catastrophic loss of an airplane, then why on earth would anyone want to prohibit safety regulators from banning large shipments of these batteries on passenger airliners,” said Nelson.  

The lawmaker’s legislation also comes on the heels of new warnings about the potential risk of bulk lithium-ion battery shipments from key federal safety regulators.  Yesterday, the FAA issued a safety alert urging U.S. and foreign passenger and cargo airlines to conduct a safety risk assessment of transporting lithium batteries.  In December, Nelson sent a letter to FAA Administrator Michael Huerta asking the agency to take additional steps to mitigate the risk posed by lithium-ion batteries carried on U.S. commercial aircraft.  In addition, the National Transportation Safety Board separately issued two new urgent safety recommendations regarding the transport of certain bulk lithium-ion batteries.

Last month, the ICAO’s air navigation commission recommended a ban on cargo shipments of lithium-ion batteries on passenger aircraft.  The full ICAO council is slated to take up the ban later this month.  In contrast, the ICAO’s dangerous goods panel voted 11-7 last November to reject such a ban.

According to the FAA, there have been 171 recorded incidents involving smoke, fire, extreme heat or explosion from batteries carried as cargo or baggage that have been recorded since 1991.  One incident not on the FAA’s list is the tragic 2010 fire and crash of UPS Flight 6 in Dubai.  The jet reportedly was carrying a significant number of lithium batteries in its cargo hold, leading authorities to seek restrictions on bulk transport of lithium batteries capable of bringing down a plane.