Are You Shipping Or Packing Lithium-Ion Batteries? Here Are 7 Things You Need To Know

The Battery Dilemma

The vigilance by airlines about keeping the fire-prone Galaxy Note 7 off planes may seem excessive. Maybe it shouldn't: Lithium-ion batteries have been implicated in two fatal plane crashes since 2010, and the FAA has reported that at least 138 aviation incidents involving smoke or fires from lithium-ion batteries have occurred since 1991.

New regulations for traveling with or shipping lithium-ion batteries have followed. And so has the complexity of complying with the rules. "Over the last couple years, the regulations have been in a constant state of flux. It's hard for [people] to keep up," said Bob Richard, a former U.S. official for hazardous materials safety who is now vice president of regulatory affairs at Labelmaster, a Chicago-based firm that assists companies with hazmat compliance.

Meanwhile, lithium-ion batteries are becoming an increasingly pivotal part of many people's lives – and of the tech industry – as more and more electronic devices hit the market. In the following slides, we've gathered up the key things to know about shipping and packing lithium-ion batteries for air travel.

Thermal Runaway

The big risk with lithium-ion batteries is that heat being released can trigger a positive feedback loop, known as thermal runaway, that can lead to a fire. This can happen because of defects (as in the case of the Galaxy Note 7), but there are other causes as well, such as overcharging or damage in transit. Authorities have connected two fatal cargo plane fires to the presence of large shipments of lithium-ion batteries on board. The plane crashes – in 2010 and 2011 – killed all four of the crew members on the planes.

Regulations Under Trump

New standards for lithium-ion battery air transport were released by the International Civil Aviation Authority (ICAO), a United Nations agency, in April 2016. The regulations didn't make it through the rulemaking process in the U.S. during the Obama administration. The Trump administration has frozen the adoption of new regulations. As a result, the regulations are not binding for air transport of lithium-ion batteries within the U.S. There is no uniform standard. That has left shipping companies and airlines to each decide which rules to enforce around lithium-ion battery transport.

Carry-On Or Checked Baggage?

The FAA has banned standalone or spare lithium-ion batteries in checked baggage. For instance, passengers aren't allowed to check an extra laptop battery or a smartphone "power bank" in their luggage. The FAA still allows those batteries in carry-on bags and hasn't put a limit on how many batteries you can bring. Electronic devices that contain lithium-ion batteries (such as laptops) are OK in checked baggage, too – as long as the batteries are 100whr or less. Larger battery sizes require airline approval. However, because there isn't a universal regulation in the U.S., the rules may differ by airline.

Shipping Regulations

Matters get more complicated for shipping lithium-ion batteries since many of these shipments will use air transport at some point. FedEx and UPS do allow shipments of electronic devices that contain lithium-ion batteries by air. You can also ship two spare lithium-ion batteries that are packed "with equipment" (i.e., with the devices they're intended to operate). Packaging for those items must be able to prevent short circuiting and other issues that could cause a fire.

The biggest new restrictions, however, are for packages that just contain standalone lithium-ion batteries, as we'll see in the following slides.

Standalone Batteries

Reflecting the UN regulations, FedEx and UPS have both recently adopted new rules for shipping standalone lithium-ion batteries by air. Those include:

- Batteries must not be charged to more than 30 percent of their capacity.

- Shippers can only send one package of lithium-ion batteries to the same address at one time. The weight restriction for the package will vary between 10 kilograms and 35 kilograms, depending on the energy level of the batteries.

- Shippers must use strong, rigid packaging, and include special markings and labeling.

- Packaging must be able to prevent short circuiting, as well as "movement within the outer package" and "accidental activation of the equipment."

- Shippers must file a "Shipper's Declaration" with the carriers.

Passenger Plane Ban

Some locations aren't served by cargo aircraft, so shipping companies sometimes rely on passenger planes to complete shipments. However, the UN regulations ban the transport of lithium-ion battery packages on passenger planes. As a result, FedEx and UPS have said they will only ship these packages on cargo aircraft. That means that shipping lithium-ion batteries to some locations may not be possible by air transport. "It's in your best interest to map out [your cargo's route] beforehand with the help of FedEx or UPS," said Richard, of Labelmaster. "If you don't know, you might be in for a big surprise. You may end up dealing with an airline that won't take your cargo."


For the time being, the U.S. Postal Service allows transport of standalone lithium-ion battery by aircraft. Packages can contain a maximum of two batteries and must include special markings. The Postal Service also allows shipping of electronic devices containing lithium-ion batteries (or batteries packed with equipment).

However, new rules have been proposed that could be adopted within the next few months. Since the Postal Service is a quasi-public agency, it's not subject to the Trump Administration's freeze on new regulations, Richard said. These proposed rules include a ban on transport of lithium-ion battery packages on aircraft. That means that ground transport could soon be the only option for shipping the batteries via the USPS, which could affect shipping times. There may be exceptions made for remote locations, however, the USPS said in an email to CRN.