WASHINGTON — Federal regulators have turned down a request by a pilots union to ban air shipments of lithium batteries despite three new incidents in which battery shipments caught fire.
Instead, the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration sent a warning Wednesday to cargo shippers that the government intends to step up enforcement of hazardous materials regulations, especially those that apply to lithium batteries and devices containing the batteries.
The Air Line Pilots Association International, the world's largest pilots union, said increased enforcement won't go nearly far enough.
"Enforcement of inadequate regulations still produces inadequate safety. We still stand behind our call for a temporary ban until new regulations are adopted and enforced," said John Prater, the union's president.
The union in August sent a letter to Cynthia Douglass, the safety administration's acting deputy administrator, calling for a ban. The union said it was alarmed by an increase in incidents in which shipments containing the batteries caught fire. If a battery short-circuits, it can catch fire and ignite other batteries.
Since the union sent its letter, three new incidents involving the batteries have been reported to the Federal Aviation Administration:
* On Sept. 9, a passenger on an American Airlines flight to Los Angeles dropped a "personal electronic device," which then caught fire.
* On Aug. 25, Federal Express workers discovered a "burning and smoking package" at its Medford, Mass., facility. The package containing GPS devices was to be shipped by air to Seattle. Workers cut open the package but were unable to put out the fire using a fire extinguisher. Firefighters were called in.
* On Aug. 15, United Parcel Service's airline hub in Taiwan discovered a smoldering package of batteries sent by a shipper in Macau, China.
Since 1991, more than 40 air transport-related incidents involving lithium batteries and devices powered by lithium batteries have been identified, the safety administration said.
Douglass responded to the union in a letter dated Sept. 29, saying the agency is working on new regulations and hopes to publish a proposal sometime this fall.
It often takes months or years after new regulations are proposed before they receive final approval and are put into effect.