DOT defends lithium-ion battery air shipping restrictions

Says goal is to prevent midair incidents

The U.S. Department of Transportation maintains that stricter rules for carrying small lithium-ion batteries on passenger jets and air freighters are needed to improve air safety, despite opposition by an industry group as well as federal government data that appears to show the opposite.

Computerworld reported earlier this month that a little-known DOT proposal would require stricter packaging rules for small lithium and lithium-ion batteries (defined as under 100 watt-hours in capacity).

The rules are being proposed despite Federal Aviation Administration data analyzed by Computerworld showing that apart from one tragic incident, no deaths and only 26 injuries can be attributed to the billions of lithium batteries shipped every year.

The Rechargeable Battery Association (PRBA), a trade group, argues that the restrictions will cost shippers and manufacturers billions of dollars that will be passed on to online consumer-electronics buyers. The group favors stricter enforcement of existing rules.

Out of commission due to a massive storm that buried Washington, the DOT did not respond until late last week.

Gordon Delcambre, a spokesman for the DOT's Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, called the PRBA's estimate "grandiose."

"Until we get to the final rule, it's too early to nail down a specific cost," he said.

Despite the mostly clean record for batteries so far, the DOT is concerned about the potential consequences of a major midair incident, Delcambre said.

"It's not like you can just pull off the side of the road," he said. "So any accident is of intense interest to us, because of the potential for catastrophe."

The Air Line Pilots Association also supports the tighter restrictions and has called for lithium batteries to be treated as "fully regulated dangerous goods" when being transported as airline cargo.

Under the new rules, lithium batteries would also need to be stored on freighters in areas covered by sprinklers or accessible by the flight crew in case of fire or smoke caused by short circuits.

Current rules forbid passengers from carrying spare lithium/lithium-ion batteries in their checked luggage unless the batteries are wrapped in individual plastic bags. This is to prevent exposed battery terminals from making contact and causing a short-circuit. The proposed rules would extend that requirement to rechargeable nickel metal-hydride (NiMH) and alkaline batteries.

Delcambre acknowledged that the new U.S. regulations would be stricter than rules set by the International Civil Aviation Organization, the Montreal-based United Nations agency that sets transport rules for most of the rest of the world.

For shippers, the biggest change would be that small batteries for laptops and other devices would need to be shipped in Class 2 Hazardous Material packaging.

These could be the same cardboard, fiberboard or plastic bubble-wrap used by many shippers today, Delcambre said. The main difference is that the batteries would need to be sealed in a plastic bag or simply taped to protect the battery terminals.

"As long as it's packed so that there's no chance of short-circuiting, that's fine," he said.

Devices such as the iPod, where the battery comes sealed inside the device, are exempt from the stricter shipping rules, he said.

The full legislation can be read online and commented upon until mid-March.

Delcambre added that the DOT is not responding to the potential for lithium batteries to be used by terrorists as an explosive on flights.

"We can't speak on that except to say that we oversee transportation safety. The TSA oversees transportation security," he said.

Eric Lai covers Windows and Linux, desktop applications, databases and business intelligence for Computerworld. Follow Eric on Twitter at @ericylai or subscribe to Eric's RSS feed . His e-mail address is elai@computerworld.com.

Copyright © 2010 IDG Communications, Inc.

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