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Delta Battery Ban Sparks Industry Brush Fire

December 8, 2008 – 8:38 am


Delta Cargo it seems has slipped up on the side of caution.

The airline said on Nov 25 it cannot accept cargo with attached devices powered by lithium batteries, those same batteries that are used in most data loggers for monitoring temperature sensitive shipments.

Delta reportedly made a conservative interpretation of somewhat ambiguous guidance on lithium batteries issued by the US DOT Pipeline & Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA)

 The airline’s “out-of-the-blue” edict spurred a flurry of holiday weekend activity by those in the industry who first learned of it, as reports circulated that British Airways, American, and KLM  were poised to follow Delta’s example.

The ban doesn’t single out data loggers. It applies to cargo with any operating device attached to it that uses a lithium battery, such as transplant organs with lithium battery-powered pumps.
IATA’s Time and Temperature task force, meeting in Montreal to draft final revisions to IATA’s Chapter 17 cold chain guidance, prepared to issue a letter of petition to DOT and others on the implications of the vague guidance, task force chairman Kevin O’ Donnell reports.

While lithium batteries have been known to cause fires in passenger and cargo compartments, there has never been an incidence of catastrophic overheating of data loggers.
Lithium batteries in devices attached to cargo “clearly fall well within the limits” described for exceptions to the Hazardous Material Regulations (HMR) under Special Provision 188 of the guidance, O’Donnell says.

Sensitech submitted a formal request for interpretation of HMR 49 CFR Parts 171-180 to DOT, along with extensive documentation of its devices’ content, configurations, and testing. DOT promptly responded, saying that while the lithium-cell containing devices are subject to HMR, all of Sensitech’s data loggers qualified for the exceptions for small lithium batteries under SP 188 (CFR 172.102), reports Sensitech’s Henry Ames.

Will other device makers have to send similar letters to DOT, document the lithium content and configurations of their devices with the agency, and demonstrate conformity with the exception requirements? That remains to be answered.

“As long as device-makers comply with HMR 49 CFR, I believe most data loggers would fall under SP 188. But it will be up to each company to ensure and possibly demonstrate that compliance to DOT,” says Ames.

Sensitech also sought answers from Delta on their reasoning behind the ban. Delta had determined that CFR 49 imposed regulations on lithium batteries in carry-on luggage, checked baggage, and bulk cargo. As the rules did not specifically address cells used in devices attached to cargo, they opted for a conservative position, in light of DOT’s concerns over the batteries.

Ames reports the airline is now preparing to rescind their new rule. “Taking this step will alleviate concerns that other airlines will have, and I believe they will follow suit in (continuing to allow) data loggers,” says Ames.

Look for a posting on the lithium battery issue on Kevin O’Donnell’s site, and Kevin’s full treatment of the controversy in PMPN’s January BioPharma Transport supplement.

Dave Vaczek

  1. One Response to “Delta Battery Ban Sparks Industry Brush Fire”

  2. When I first read the statement in November, I assume it would be pulled like so many fare hikes. How could Delta take such a risk when revenues were already so strained? The reported following by British Airways, American, and KLM makes this start to look like it will have legs. This makes me suspect the DOT weight restrictions did not adequately address insurance and airline carriers liability concerns.

    Maybe tightening the DOT rule, by working with carriers, will loosen private restrictions.

    By Jon Cameron on Dec 15, 2008

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