WASHINGTON (AP) — The world's largest pilots union said Tuesday it wants bulk shipments of lithium batteries and products containing the batteries immediately banned from passenger and cargo planes because they can start a fire.
The U.S. Federal Aviation Administration said it is not prepared to take emergency action on the issue.
In seeking a federal ban, the Air Line Pilots Association pointed to three incidents since June in which lithium battery shipments apparently caused fires aboard U.S. planes.
On Aug. 14, a fire in a shipment of 1,000 e-cigarettes — a battery-powered device that provides inhaled doses of nicotine — was discovered in the cargo compartment of a plane after it landed at Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport. Each cigarette contained a rechargeable lithium-ion battery.
In another instance, a package of cell phone batteries shipped from Michigan to the Dominican Republican was found smoking and smoldering after a United Parcel Service plane landed in Santo Domingo on July 15. The package documentation indicated "used batteries — non-haz."
A burned package containing a lithium-ion "bicycle-power device" was discovered in the cargo of a UPS flight from Ontario, Calif., to Honolulu on June 18, the union said.
"The evidence of a clear and present danger is mounting," Mark Rogers, director of the union's dangerous good program, said in a statement. "We need an immediate ban on these dangerous goods to protect airline passengers, crews and cargo."
The union emphasized that it is not seeking a ban on passengers carrying electronic devices containing lithium batteries onto planes, such as laptop computers, cell phones, and cameras. Instead, the union's concern is with cargo containing multiple batteries, either loose or inside products.
If a battery short-circuits, it can catch fire and that fire can ignite other batteries.
John Prater, the union's president, said in a letter to Cynthia Douglass, acting deputy administrator of the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, that an immediate ban on shipments is necessary until the agency can develop regulations for safe packaging of the batteries for transport.
He noted that Douglass told a House panel this spring that the safety administration is working on new regulations for the shipment of lithium batteries. However, he said that if the government doesn't act quickly, the union will ask Congress to step in.
Officials for the safety administration didn't immediately return a phone call seeking comment.
Federal Aviation Administration spokesman Paul Takemoto said aviation officials are working with the safety administration on regulations to address the problem.
"At this point in time we're not prepared to take emergency action, but we're watching the situation very closely," Takemoto said.
Prater said the three recent incidents are similar to a Feb. 7, 2006, incident in which a UPS DC-8 made an emergency landing at Philadelphia International Airport after the flight crew detected smoke in the cargo hold, which worsened as the plane descended. The plane landed safely and the crew escaped with minor injuries, but the plane and most of the cargo were destroyed.
"We have been most fortunate that the lithium-ion battery malfunctions (in the three recent incidents) didn't cause an accident, but luck is not a sound safety strategy," Prater said.
The Federal Aviation Administration no longer permits large, pallet-size shipments of lithium-metal batteries on passenger planes. Airline passengers are not allowed to pack loose lithium batteries in checked luggage. Consumer electronics containing lithium batteries are still allowed in carry-on and checked luggage. However, passengers are limited to two spare lithium batteries in carry-on baggage.