USPS To Stop Delivering iPads And Kindles To Troops And Overseas Consumers On May 16

The United States Postal Service has banned all international shipments of electronics with lithium batteries effective May 16. The cost for families to send gadgets via private parcel service to enlisted loved ones in some countries could almost quadruple.

Starting on May 16, new United States Postal Service (USPS) regulations will prohibit iPads, Kindles, smartphones, and other electronics with lithium batteries from being mailed to overseas troops or foreign customers. American firms with customers outside the country's borders or people with loved ones serving overseas will have to use private parcel services at higher prices. The news is a headache for USPS employees, military families, and electronic manufacturers and resellers ... but a boon for private delivery firms like UPS, DHL, and FedEx.

Lithium batteries, which power many personal electronic devices, can explode or catch fire in certain conditions. In order to get around this, consumer electronic manufacturers such as Apple or Amazon ship their products with a minimal charge—which mitigates the safety risk. Fully charged, improperly stored, or improperly packed lithium batteries do pose a risk of explosion, however. Lithium batteries have been implicated in at least two fatal cargo plane crashes since 2006, including a UPS jet in Dubai.

For cargo shippers and postal services, this poses a quandary. Improperly shipped lithium batteries are a serious safety risk. However, shipping of personal electronics is a multibillion dollar business annually. According to the USPS, they will prohibit shipping of lithium batteries and any device containing them effective May 16. In a publicly issued document, the USPS says that the ban was made because of deliberations between the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) and the Universal Postal Union (UPU), two international bodies which issue semi-binding guidelines for global trade. The International Air Transport Association's (IATA) 2012 regulations for lithium metal and lithium ion batteries, which the ICAO use, allow for the shipment of consumer electronics with proper safety precautions, while the UPU's lithium battery regulations (PDF) are ambiguously worded—worthy of an entire phalanx of lawyers.

Lithium batteries have been implicated in at least two fatal cargo plane crashes since 2006.

The USPS tells customers they anticipate "on January 1, 2013, customers will be able to mail specific quantities of lithium batteries internationally (including to and from an APO, FPO, or DPO location) when the batteries are properly installed in the personal electronic devices they are intended to operate." In the meantime, Americans hoping to send iPads, Kindles, laptop batteries, and smartphones overseas will be forced to either break the law by lying about their package contents or to shell out dearly for higher-priced private shipping services.

Neither UPS, DHL, nor FedEx ships directly to APO, FPO, or DPO addresses. FedEx offers a service for military boxes, SmartPost, which is subject to the same restrictions. After May 16, mailing an iPad to a loved one serving overseas would require mailing it to a civilian address in the host country—which, for a country like Kuwait, would make the price jump from the current Military Priority Mail rate of $5.30 to more than $20.

Fast Company spoke to Darlene Casey of the Postal Service, who explained the new regulations. According to Casey, the revision was required by ICAO and UPU standards, both of which prohibit lithium batteries in mail shipments on international commercial air transportation (while allowing them in non-mail shipments such as private courier services). The May 16 start date was chosen "to provide mailers with time to make shipping adjustments"; the Postal Service also acknowledges that the change will be an inconvenience to cus­tomers and that the "USPS is working with expert organizations to determine if any new exceptions can be developed prior to January 2013. Further announcements will be made should USPS be able to accept lithium batteries in certain types of mail shipments as soon as any new options become available." As a courtesy, Fast Company was provided with a graphic of consumer electronic items which will be forbidden on outbound U.S. international mail after May 16 (below).

Of course, the group hardest hit by the USPS decision are American troops. Service members residing overseas with APO and FPO addresses are served only by the USPS and FedEx. Neither DHL not UPS deliver to APO or FPO boxes; however, both do ship to countries and cities where troops are based. After May 16, friends or family members hoping to send low-cost tablets and e-readers to service members abroad will no longer be able to send parcels by U.S. mail. It's important to note that the restrictions do not reply to shipping lithium batteries domestically or to American residents receiving lithium batteries; the ban only applies to outbound lithium battery products shipped internationally.

Winnie Pritchett of non-profit organization iPads for Soldiers, which ships iPads without any financial assistance from Apple to troops overseas, notes that they currently send the bulk of their iPads overseas via USPS.

Pritchett calls the new regulations a case of the Postal Service "shooting themselves in the foot." iPads for Soldiers sent over 600 iPads to Afghanistan in 2011; each iPad took approximately two weeks to make it from the United States to Afghanistan. According to Pritchett, the iPads are particularly popular with wounded warriors with missing hands—they were able to use the touch-based iPad much more easily than a conventional computer.

As private parcel services, FedEx, DHL and UPS all permit shipping of lithium battery-powered electronic devices. UPS's Mike Mangeot told Fast Company that the shipping giant handles lithium battery-containing electronic devices in compliance with U.S. and international shipping regulations, conducts extensive employee training for handling lithium battery shipments, and audits customers for proper packaging, handling, and documentation of lithium batteries.

Although the Postal Service claims to be adhering to international regulations, their strict ban on any international lithium battery shipment is semi-exceptional—among major worldwide postal services, only the Australia Post has a similar regulation. Other major postal services have less stringent rules; the Royal Mail (U.K.), for instance, allows smartphones, iPads, and Kindles while forbidding laptop computer batteries, and Japan Post restricts lithium batteries to slower sea mail. Yet other services, such as the German Bundespost, still allow international air mail of lithium batteries within stringent safety requirements.

Another group hard hit by the USPS lithium battery ban are commercial resellers. Aaron Block of bay.ru, an American firm specializing in consumer electronics exports to the Russian market, told Fast Company that "few outside of our industry realize that world's best express shippers like FedEx, DHL, and UPS still have major challenges in Russia. That said, there is often one preferred shipping solution for any given good." Hall's firm will use alternate shippers for the Russian market; the issue is a large one for giants like Apple and Amazon, along with smaller resellers.

Other services, such as the German Bundespost, still allow international air mail of lithium batteries within stringent safety requirements.

In the end, the USPS's rush to ban lithium batteries is surprising. Although the Postal Service claims they are just getting in line with international regulations, the Bundespost and Royal Mail either successfully straggled getting in line with overly cautious (and ambiguous) safety regulations, or found loopholes to get around them. The USPS has legendary financial difficulties and a track record of institutional paralysis and poor decision-making. Despite implied promises of a January 2013 policy change, shutting off Kindle exports to Amazon and iPad shipments to American troops is simply puzzling. The root of the matter is that lithium batteries, with proper safety precautions, are safe for air shipping. While it is the job of the ICAO and UPU to enact overly stringent bureaucratic restrictions, a blanket ban offers minimal safety benefits and massive economic damage to the USPS.

[Top Image: Fickr user laffertyryan and Michael Goodin; Bottom Image: USPS]

For more stories like this, follow @fastcompany on Twitter. Email Neal Ungerleider, the author of this article, here or find him on Twitter and Google+.

Correction: An earlier version of this article misidentified Aaron Block of bay.ru.

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25 Comments

  • Gerry Flood

    Lithium and lithium ion are (2) completely different chemistries with different responses for fires,

  • Abol

    I wouldn't call two cargo planes exploding since 2006 too small a hazard to be, quote, "overly cautious."

  • Tgawne

    This should be obvious.  This was not a stupid decision - it was a corrupt one with another agenda.

    The commercial shippers will do anything to kill the post office.  Look at how they lobbied to have billions taken out of the post office budget to 'pre-pay' retirement costs (funny how Fedex and UPS don't have to do this).  I am not against private shippers - for some things they are indeed more efficient than the post office - but just try to get Fedex to deliver a letter across the country for the price of a first-class stamp (good luck).  So instead of competing on price, the commercial shippers are using their influence to cripple the post office.

    Making it impossible/difficult to ship anything containing a battery via the post office - and easy via fedex! - is surely just the start.  Look for the post office to take more arbitrary hits real soon.

    Make fun of the post office all you like, you will miss it when it's not there.

  • David

    It is illegal to compete with the post office in delivery of first class mail. First remove the ban on competition, then complain about the lack of competition.

  • Yevgen Lasman

    I'm puzzled — batteries are banned due to the ICAO/IATA regulations to protect aircrafts (sounds stupid but okay)… but what about domestic flights? Nobody care about them? Darn! If overseas flights tend to crash into the ocean, domestic would presumable do this into the ground full of living beings.

    P.S. As a person living in Eastern Europe I could only note that DLH, FedEX and UPS aren't a choice anyway — they are commercial transportation services having NO postal license in here thus import duties usually higher while on USPS based shipments import duties aren't even paid because one is a postal service, regular mail. And eBay export would go down quite a lot — people were purchasing lot of electronic devices from US.

  • $24604893

    Domestic flights are not covered by ICAO/IATA regulations - only international flights are covered.

  • EM745

    The irony here of course being that Lithium-Ion batts are routinely used as backup power for standby instruments in commercial aircraft (e.g. L-3's "Trilogy").

  • $24604893

    Perhaps, Ben Ferguson, the true dolts are those who so willingly display their personal ignorance in internet discussions. Some FPO, most APO, and virtually all DPO mail is shipped overseas on commercial passenger airliners - you know, the big silver things that fly through the air carrying hundreds of people? I am impressed by the brilliance of your analysis that led you to the conclusion that "
    there's no danger of the items exploding when private carriers fly them" - even in light of the fact that you are aware that "they were "implicated" in 2 cargo plane crashes in the past 7 years." Brilliant, simply brilliant! You are so bright I'll bet your mother calls you "Sun," right?

    Where did you get the bizarre notion that "USPS jumps from "implicated" to making it the cause of the crash" anyway? That broad assertion does not seem to be supported by the facts. Similarly, with your ridiculous claim that USPS "hence ban(ned) shipping them." I guess you forgot to actually research this issue, because the inconvenient (for you) fact is that USPS has not banned anything whatsoever but are only complying with the international shipping rules made by the international regulatory bodies.

    You might be interested, but, no doubt, embarassed once again, to learn that USPS does not need any government bailout, has not asked for or indicated that they want a government bailout, and nobody is even discussing giving them a bailout. Facts sure are inconvenient and pesky things, aren't they? It's no wonder you go to such great lengths to avoid them.

  • US SOLDIER

    You must be a USPS employee in a senior position.  No other reason anybody would be defending them with such pointless conviction. Ben Ferguson is absolutely correct and, Yevgen Lasman has a very good point.  Also just the fact that many other countries have made changes to comply with ICAO and UPU regulations and still be capable to ship certain personal electronics containing Lithium batteries, while the USPS just bans them all, completely.  And yes, Liam Skye, they did "BAN" Lithium batteries from shipment.  Even if it is to comply with international regulations, it is still a "BAN"...  So before you criticize other people's comments and views of this topic, consider getting YOUR own facts straight.  Just a thought.  Oh, and if you do work for the USPS, especially in a senior position, you need to be fired and replaced by someone who can think before they act or speak.  Just another thought  ;)

  • $24604893

    Wrong, wrong, and wrong - just like Ben Ferguson was in his diatribe. Yevgen Lasman had a question, not a point. USPS has not banned anything. They are required by law to adhere to the rules (and bannings) made by the international aviation authorities. Those authorities have said that undeclared lithium batteries can not be stored in the cargo holds of passenger aircraft. It is really very simple if you try hard enough - USPS does not have any authority over international aviation - it is simply a paying customer like everyone else. Read the regulation change here:

    http://www.gpo.gov/fdsys/pkg/F... 

    If you want to craft a convincing argument it is usually best not to start it off with a false assumption - it tends to invalidate your entire position.

  • $24604893

    You are dead wrong on all counts. USPS did not ban anything - the batteries were banned by ICAO/IATA/UPU. USPS is bound by law to adhere to the regulations created by those bodies. They have done so. If you care to rise above your personal ignorance on this topic read the Federal Register notice that changed the regulation. 
    http://www.gpo.gov/fdsys/pkg/F.... Sometimes it is better to know something than to just spout nonsense.

    Oh, by the way, if you wish to craft a convincing argument, it is better not to start it with some childish name calling and false assumptions. Doing so just makes you look like an idiot.

  • Lexluthor360

    They're not receiving a bailout, but how long will they last?  They were already ailing before passing this rule, which will cut profits by who-knows how many more millions, or billions.  If they don't want to fly the planes, let FedEx and UPS deliver to APO.  I'm sure there is someone who can fill the billet.

  • Ben Ferguson

    Has it occurred to those dolts at USPS they don't take packages overseas to APO/FPO. The packages are sent to to the APO/FPO locatons in the US and are then shipped via military transport or contract airline companies. Apparently there's no danger of the items exploding when private carriers fly them. So they were "implicated" in 2 cargo plane crashes in the past 7 years. The USPS jumps from "implicated" to making it the cause of the crash hence ban shipping them.  With  common sense like this is it any wonder USPS is in deep financial trouble and require a government bailout.

  • Pete Steinmetz

    This is totally stupid.  There is no international regulation banning the shipping of electronic items powered by small lithium batteries.
    There are regulations for shipping large lithium batteries and boxes containing bulk lithium batteries.  Both rechargeable and non rechargeable lithium batteries are viewed the same in the regulations. Reputable manufacturers like Apple and others submit their batteries for testing and certification before shipping them.
    The USPS concern is that mail goes on passenger planes.  UPS, Fed Ex and DHL use cargo planes.  It is true that lithium batteries are suspected of causing cargo plane crashes.  The UPS crash in Dubai in particular.
    Airlines recommend that you carry your portable devices containing lithium batteries in the passenger cabin and not in checked luggage.  If anything goes wrong, they can be dealt with in the passenger compartment much easier than in the luggage compartment.

    The "Possible" failure mode for lithium batteries is fire.  Most lithium batteries have safety features built in that would prevent such failures.  some cheap Asian products do not include the safety features.  Many batteries used in radio control cars, airplanes, and helicopters do not contain any safety features that would prevent them from catching on fire.

    The article does not fully explain the reasoning behind this complex issue.

    I am in the lithium battery business.

  • Stephanie

    Elisabeth - The author does not state that it is JUST the US Military that it affects, but that they are the MOST affected.  As of 2010 there were roughly 55,000 US Civilian Federal employees that are living/working outside the US(37,000 if you don't count US territories) and I am sure that some of them also have their families with them, but there were 200,000 US Troops stationed in 150 countries other than the US (including US territories, I don't have data on the number not including them) and yes some of those duty stations allow families to live with them, but let's just go with the civilian and military employees only.  So the author is in fact correct that the Military is most affected by this.  I am not saying it doesn't affect the other groups and I am not down playing the fact that they also need care/attention/respect from home as they very much do.  This info I found was from 2010 and I didn't write down exact numbers I rounded them off so there very well could be an influx/deflux on either group but I highly doubt it was such a great change that the civilian employees now outweigh the military, if in fact I am wrong, I do apologize, but it's myopic and crap to draw conclusions based on anything other than facts.