Safety advocates have warned for more than a decade that someday an air shipment of lithium batteries like those used in cameras, cell phones and countless other products would catch fire, causing a plane to crash and people to die.
That day may have arrived last month.
A United Parcel Service cargo plane with a fire raging on board, and carrying a large quantity of lithium batteries, crashed near Dubai in the United Arab Emirates on Sept. 3, killing both pilots. The cause of the accident isn't likely to be determined for months, but investigators suspect the batteries were either the source of the fire or contributed to its severity. The Federal Aviation Administration was concerned enough by the accident to warn air carriers about risks posed by lithium battery shipments.
The accident has given new urgency to a high-stakes lobbying struggle under way in Washington. Pilot unions and safety advocates are urging the government to treat air shipments of lithium batteries as hazardous materials. But rules proposed by the Obama administration are opposed by many of the nation's top retailers, electronics manufacturers, battery makers and cargo airlines, including UPS.
They say the rules would cost them hundreds of millions of dollars in added packaging, paperwork and training for employees. The rechargeable battery industry alone says the rules would cost more than $1 billion in the first year.
The makers of medical devices say the rules might mean delays in getting equipment to patients, and one electronics lobbyist even portrayed the proposal as a holiday Grinch that could drive up the cost of gift shipments.
"The cost of expedited delivery to stores could become prohibitive and could ruin a lot of Christmases for children," Christopher McLean, executive director of a retailers coalition that includes Amazon.com, Best Buy, Radio Shack, Target and Wal-Mart, told Transportation Department officials at a meeting earlier this year, though that's unlikely this Christmas.
Industry lobbyists say the government already has enough rules to ensure safe battery shipments; they say the problem is that a relative few shippers aren't following current packaging requirements. They recommend stronger enforcement. Indeed, many of the more than 40 documented incidents of lithium battery fires in flight or at airports involved improperly packaged or handled batteries.
George Kerchner, a lobbyist for the rechargeable battery industry, wrote Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood last month asking him not to let the Dubai crash cause regulators to rush put new rules in place.
"We urge that any actions taken by DOT be justified by facts, not speculation or political pressures," Kerchner wrote. "They also should be narrowly drawn to minimize disruption of commerce in a holiday season that will be critical to the nation's economic recovery."
A bill that would prod DOT to move faster on new rules is opposed by industry supporters in Congress.
Pilots and safety advocates say the industry opposition is typical of the hurdles they face when trying to get government regulators to take action to prevent a tragedy even when there is clear evidence of danger.
"All regulation eventually gets written in blood because it takes something catastrophic to get anything done," said Russ Leighton, safety director for the International Brotherhood of Teamsters' airline division. "In this case, only two people died, and it wasn't a huge media story, so we'll probably have to wait till 300 people do die before there's any change."
Safety experts point to the 1996 ValuJet crash in the Florida Everglades that killed all 110 people aboard. The cause of the accident was a fire started by improperly shipped oxygen canisters in the cargo hold. The National Transportation Safety Board said the Federal Aviation Administration shared blame for the accident because the agency failed to implement earlier recommendations that cargo holds on passenger planes be required to have either smoke detectors or fire-suppression systems. The requirements were put in place after the crash.
Lithium batteries are "a big safety concern," said Bob Chipkevich, a former head of NTSB's hazardous materials division. "I don't think we need to wait for a major accident with multiple fatalities to move forward."
Fire broke out four years ago in cargo containing lithium batteries and other goods on a UPS plane. The plane made an emergency landing in Philadelphia and no one was killed. The cause of the fire wasn't determined, but batteries were suspected. Afterward, the NTSB recommended all cargo compartments on cargo-only planes have fire suppression systems. The FAA rejected that recommendation, saying it would be too expensive.
In the recent UPS accident, a fire erupted in the Boeing 747-400's main cargo compartment — the same part of the plane as the passenger compartment on passenger-carrying planes — within a half-hour after takeoff from Dubai. The compartment didn't have a halon gas fire suppression system. The flight's two pilots, racing to return to Dubai, radioed that smoke was so dense in the cockpit they couldn't read their instruments or change radio frequencies.
Unlike other kinds of batteries, some lithium batteries contain metal that will spontaneously ignite if exposed to air. Also, the positive and negative poles in some lithium batteries are close together, leading more easily to short circuiting, which can cause a fire.
Lithium batteries come in two types: lithium metal, which are nonrechargeable and are used in products like watches and cameras, and lithium-ion, which are rechargeable and are used for products like laptop computers, cell phones and power tools. Both can short circuit and ignite if they are improperly packaged, damaged or have manufacturing defects. Batteries contained in devices can also overheat and ignite if the device inadvertently turns on. Overheated lithium batteries can blow the lids off steel shipping containers with enough force to damage a plane. Once a battery catches fire, the heat can set off other batteries.
The halon gas fire suppression systems required in the cargo compartments of passenger planes don't work on fires caused by lithium metal batteries. Shipment of lithium metal batteries is already prohibited on passenger planes, but not cargo planes. There is also concern that if a large quantity of lithium-ion batteries was to ignite, it could overwhelm a halon suppression system. Lithium-ion battery fires can reach 1,100 degrees, close to the melting point of aluminum, a key material in airplane construction. Lithium-metal battery fires are far hotter, capable of reaching 4,000 degrees.
The Air Line Pilots Association has asked LaHood to ban air shipments of all lithium batteries until new rules are implemented.
"It's difficult to know what caused the (Dubai) fire, but it really doesn't matter because we know that a fire did break out on that airplane and the situation quickly became uncontrollable," said Mark Rogers, ALPA's hazardous materials chairman. "We had what was possibly a live demonstration of what can happen if batteries are exposed to fire."