Instead of banning lithium batteries - let's enforce the law
About midnight on Feb. 7, 2006, the crew of UPS flight 1307 was alerted to a smoke indication in the cockpit as their DC-8 freighter was on its final approach to Philadelphia International Airport. The pilots immediately evacuated the airplane after landing, escaping with minor injuries as fire destroyed the plane and its cargo on the ground. A little over four years later, UPS Flight 6, a 747-400F flying from Dubai to Cologne also developed an in-flight fire, this time resulting in a devastating crash and the death of two crew members.
Subsequent investigations of both mishaps initially focused on an examination of safety procedures protecting airliners from cockpit smoke. Cargo carried on the flights consisted of the usual mix of commodities found on freight planes flying the late-night skies on their way to make early-morning deliveries. Another similarity between the two is that both contained shipments of lithium batteries. While not definitively determined as the cause of the Philadelphia incident, the report on the Dubai crash indicated that the spontaneous ignition of the contents of a cargo pallet, which contained a significant number of lithium batteries caused the fire.
These and other flights on which lithium batteries were suspected of causing fires may have, to varying degrees, shared the consequences of any growing industry, where there will always be a few manufacturers that make low-quality counterfeits and use inappropriate packaging. But overall, the incidents shared the effects of insufficient government supervision over poor manufacturing standards and illegal declarations of battery shipments as regular cargo.
This lack of government enforcement is why a total ban on bulk shipments of lithium-ion batteries in passenger aircraft bellies, which was announced recently, is a disappointment. The International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) imposition takes effect in April and will remain in force until its work groups decide on a new packaging standard, now expected sometime in 2018. The regulation is binding on all 191 ICAO member states and for the airlines that serve those countries, but is not required of those not participating in ICAO. However, as with many impractical directives, barring these shipments across the board punishes those who abide by the rules, essentially eliminating a significant shipping option, while enabling governments to shirk essential enforcement obligations.
While initial guidance from ICAO and subsequent media reports describing the ruling seemed vague, further clarifications now indicate that the ban does not apply to lithium-ion batteries packed with, or contained within, equipment. Fortunately, this means that computers and phones can still ship in bulk configurations with the batteries included.
We all know the use of lithium-ion batteries has become common in electronics, auto, aircraft and many other industries worldwide. As lithium-ion cell uses increase, their swift and expedited delivery provided by airfreight is forecasted to rise as these industries mature and resulting demand grows.
There is no doubt that lithium-ion batteries, when packed together without the proper packaging and handling precautions, can certainly be dangerous. In 2014, the Federal Aviation Administration applied heat to a container packed with 5,000 lithium-ion batteries that resulted in a thermal runaway and subsequent explosion of flammable gases emitted within the container. Even a favourite fire suppressant, when used, was ineffective in extinguishing the fire. The danger appears to be inherent in all aircraft configurations, passenger or all-cargo. Responding to this evidence, many airlines, including U.S. carriers, voluntarily stopped shipping lithium-ion batteries on their passenger planes.
The FAA’s testing has shown that the risk of lithium-ion battery fires can diminish if the devices are charged only up to 30 percent of their maximum. Perhaps with this in mind, the solution lies in going a step further and shipping the batteries with an even lower charge using existing packaging and packing methods. But it should not stop there.
The private sector, including lithium battery manufacturers working with ICAO and governments, must develop strict certification programs for those making, shipping and handling these cells. Once in effect, vigorous worldwide government oversight of the supply chain must enforce these mutually agreed upon standards. Countries must fulfill a vital role by investing in research and development of lithium battery detection technology and even employing canine screening to find undeclared batteries before they reach the plane.
It is important that governments increase efforts to crack down on battery counterfeiters and those who fail to comply with these enhanced shipping regulations. Others around the world should sanction authorities that fail to enforce global standards through the imposition of trade restrictions designed to correct such negligent behaviour. An industry-initiated ban is no substitute for effective government oversight and vigorous enforcement allowing people and batteries to fly safely together.
Shippers struggle with 1 April lithium-ion battery deadline
Shippers are struggling with new rules governing the shipment of lithium-ion batteries by air that come into force on 1 April limiting their carriage as cargo to freighter aircraft only and with a maximum state of charge of 30%.
The International Air Transport Association (IATA) told Lloyd’s Loading List it had received twice as many enquiries as usual from customers on dangerous goods matters in the weeks leading up to the 1 April implementation, with the majority relating to lithium-ion battery transport, following decisions by the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) late last year and again in Fepuary governing their carriage by air.
IATA’s head of dangerous goods, assistant director for cargo safety and standards Dave pennan, toldLloyd’s Loading List that a number of shippers had expressed concerns about being unable to source specific batteries after their carriage as cargo becomes prohibited on passenger aircraft. For example, a supplier of hearing aids based in Australia that had been using a battery supplier in Switzerland complained that there were no direct freighter connections between the two countries and therefore no obvious means to deliver its cargo.
pennan said it was also unclear how many shippers of lithium-ion batteries would be able to comply initially with the 30% state-of-charge rule, particularly because significant volumes of the batteries would already be in warehouses at a higher state of charge. With no obvious way to test the state of charge of batteries once they had already been packed, either by shippers, the air cargo sector, or national authorities, he believed it was almost inevitable that in the initial weeks and months following the 1 April deadline, some batteries would continue to be shipped by air on freighters at a state of charge higher than 30%.
Technically this would mean they were in peach of the rules covering the carriage of dangerous goods by air, although observers believe that the risks associated with carrying properly manufactured, tested and packaged batteries by air on freighters at a state of charge higher than 30% – as per the rules prior to 1 April – were minimal, at least for a few weeks or months following the implementation of the new rules.
A number of air cargo carriers, including Cathay Pacific, have already suspended the carriage of lithium-ion batteries as cargo following advice last year from aircraft manufacturers and aviation authorities, which in the case of Cathay Pacific includes both passenger and freighter aircraft. Mark Sutch, Cathay Pacific’s general manager for cargo sales and marketing, told Lloyd’s Loading List that the carriage of lithium-ion batteries as cargo had not made up a significant proportion of the airline’s traffic, and he believed manufacturers and importers could in most cases find other modes of transport for their goods, for example by road or sea freight.
But far more significant, particularly for air cargo carriers and shippers based in east Asia, was the ability to carry by air shipments containing lithium-ion batteries installed within electronic devices such as mobile phones, laptops, and tablets. He said this type of cargo made up a highly significant proportion of air freight business, although he was not aware of any suggestion that there were significant risk issues associated with their carriage by air, nor any current threats to restrict or prohibit their carriage by air.
While there had been some issues last year regarding the carriage of so-called ‘hover boards’ with rechargeable batteries installed in them, this had been acted upon swiftly by airlines and aviation authorities, air cargo industry sources said.
The carriage of lithium batteries as air cargo has been the subject of fierce debate in recent years, particularly since the fatal crash in 2010 of a UPS B747 freighter that was known to be carrying bulk shipments of lithium batteries that were suspected of causing an on-board fire that pought the aircraft down. Since then, their carriage has been increasingly restricted and subject to additional safety processes, and lithium-metal batteries have been banned as cargo on passenger aircraft for several years because of concerns about their potential to spontaneously combust and their resistance to fire-suppression systems due to so-called ‘thermal runaway’.
As reported by Lloyd’s Loading List, ICAO last month announced that it was banning the shipment of lithium-ion batteries as cargo on passenger aircraft from 1 April because of safety concerns, overturning a decision by ICAO’s own dangerous goods panel last October. The decision by the UN’s global aviation and air safety organisation is binding on all (191) ICAO Member States and therefore the airlines that operate in those states.
Under current ICAO rules, although ‘bulk’ shipments of lithium-ion batteries are already restricted from carriage on passenger aircraft, a ‘loophole’ had allowed shippers to pack many small boxes into one shipment to circumvent the rules. However, tests by the US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) in 2014 found that heat applied to a cargo container packed with 5,000 lithium-ion batteries led to thermal runaway and an explosion from a build-up of flammable gases, despite the addition of a fire-suppression agent. The FAA tests show that transporting lithium-ion batteries carries “a similar fire risk” to that of lithium-metal batteries, according to one report.
Since then, there have been moves to further tighten the rules, and last July, aircraft manufacturer Boeing warned its passenger airline customers about the risks of flying bulk shipments of lithium-ion batteries, recommending that they do not carry the batteries as cargo “until safer methods of packaging and transport are established and implemented”. ICAO’s dangerous goods panel last October agreed to new restrictions, including a rule that would only allow the shipment of lithium-ion batteries as cargo on passenger aircraft if the batteries are charged to a maximum of 30% of their maximum charge.
However, this has now been superseded by the decision by ICAO last month, in which the 36-nation ICAO Governing Council “adopted a new aviation safety measure which prohibits, on an interim basis, all shipments of Lithium-ion batteries as cargo on passenger aircraft”. However, the 30% state-of-charge rule will still apply to their carriage on freighter aircraft.
IATA has said it “respects” the announcement by the ICAO Governing Council to ban lithium ion batteries from cargo in passenger planes, but argues that the vast majority of incidents involving lithium batteries have been from shipments where the batteries were not in compliance with the existing regulations, noting that there had also been reports of seizures by Customs and consumer protection authorities where the lithium batteries had been identified as being of counterfeit manufacture.
“Banning their transport by air does not tackle this problem,” IATA said. “It is vital, therefore, that governments redouble their efforts to crack down on counterfeit battery producers and shippers that fail to comply with the regulations. Governments also need to enhance their oversight to prevent counterfeit producers illegally declaring battery shipments as normal cargo.”
Indeed, IATA argues that the imminent ban on lithium-ion battery shipments on passenger aircraft reflects governments’ need to better enforce non-compliance, not the failure of the air freight sector’s own dangerous goods (DG) standards. IATA said the safety concerns over their carriage arose principally from several areas: irregular manufacture, mislabelling, and improper packing – including non-compliance with dangerous goods regulations and the IATA Lithium Battery Shipping Guidelines.
IATA said teamwork would be critical in resolving the issues in order to allow the resumption of the shipping of lithium-ion batteries as bellyhold cargo. Some 400 million lithium-ion batteries are produced each week, with a significant number carried by air, often on passenger aircraft.
ICAO said it was working on a number of initiatives to raise awareness and encourage enforcement by international government authorities.
And IATA has told Lloyd’s Loading List that ICAO was also already working on a packaging standard and had invited SAE International to form a working group to develop performance standards, adding: “The schedule for the development of the working group is quite aggressive with November 2016 as the current target for completion and publication of the standard. So we would hope for this timetable to be taken into account… or indeed, if any other evidence comes to light that offers a need to review.”
Nevertheless, IATA’s Dave pennan, told Lloyd’s Loading List that 2018 was likely to be the earliest that the interim ban could be lifted. However, he did believe that it would be possible to lift the ban by creating appropriate packing standards, despite the continuing issues with non-compliance and the failure of governments to penalise non-compliance.