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 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 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 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.
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 who make substandard batteries and don’t follow hazardous materials shipping regulations. They say that 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, or drag their feet about complying with, congressional directives, especially if they disagree with them.
Without harmonization, the U.S. also can’t enforce the ICAO 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 a 2015 statement that airliners aren’t designed to withstand lithium battery fires and that continuing to accept battery shipments is “an unacceptable risk.”