IATA tackling lithium battery risk for air cargo

18 / 12 / 2015

IATA Cargo is working with regulators, postal authorities, airlines and forwarders to combat the threat posed by unauthorised or wilfully mis-declared airfreight shipments of lithium batteries.

Dave Brennan, assistant director of cargo safety and standards at airline industry grouping IATA, said that 400m lithium batteries are manufactured each week.

Lithium batteries are now heavily regulated as airfreight shipments because of the risk from “thermal runaway” when a single overheated unit can propagate heat transfer to the next cell in the box and so cause a fire to spread throughout an entire bulk load of batteries.

A UPS B747 freighter crashed after departing Dubai in September 2010, killing the two crew, and the cause was linked to a consignment of lithium batteries, which have also been associated with two other aircraft accidents.

But it is a problem that will not go away soon.

Brennan said that lithium batteries are becoming the power unit of choice for most consumer electronics, including mobile phones, computers, tablets and toys, but also in some healthcare products. Much larger versions are now appearing in some bikes and cars.

Properly declared and packed lithium batteries can still fly on freighters but have been banned from passenger aircraft bellyholds due to the fire potential.

But passenger jets are still at risk, due in part to the rise of e-commerce and some websites which offer to send either lithium batteries or electronics containing them through the global postal system, again something which is banned worldwide.

Said Brennan: “We are seeing an increase in the volume of lithium batteries transported by air. A lot of these e-commerce people are not traditional shippers of dangerous goods.

“Because of that they just do not understand that there are regulations around the transport of dangerous goods, never mind air transport.”

He continued: “And unfortunately we also have some people that know the regulations but avoid them and think they can save some money. We are seeing an increasing number of incidents as a result.”

Hoverboards, the current must-have device, are driven by lithium batteries and have been banned as carry-on hand luggage by some airlines, as the dubious quality of some power units within them poses the threat of a cabin fire.

The UK authorities recently seized 17,000 hoverboards, of which 88% were faulty, including the battery and/or the charger.

Brennan makes the point that the problem is not centred wholly on the air cargo link the in the global supply chain, and that shippers as the starting point are a key focus.

In addition, regulators outside of the aviation arena – trade ministries or departments for example – need to address the safety issue at source.

“The airlines are at the end of the supply chain, but we need to engage with everybody upstream, the ground handlers, the forwarders, and of course, more importantly, the shippers. Because if the shippers get it right, it is much easier for everybody else down the supply chain.”

And while e-commerce is an economic driver for air cargo, it is also a challenge when considered from the lithium battery angle.

Added Brennan: “Unfortunately a lot of the e-commerce sites have not done enough to make information available to the sellers, so they can understand the regulations.

“If you click on e-commerce sites, there are tens of thousands of laptop batteries up for sale. And almost all of them will say they will send to you through the mail, even though international airmail prohibits the movement of dangerous goods.

"We are working with the e-commerce sites, but we really need to push them to do more, they need to make their customers aware of the regulations. They are often buried five screens later when the buyer will find something about some of the regulatory requirements.”

He continued: “So we have a disconnect, and we are working very closely with the Universal Postal Union, because the people at the post office need to understand that when somebody hands them a box, they have to ask the question: what is in it?

“If the answer is a lithium battery, then they have to say no, you cannot do that.

“And of course none of this works unless the government and the regulators actually enforce the regulations. Those are the issues. And this is what we are doing.”

IATA has organised workshops in Beijing, Guangzhou Shanghai, Manila and Jakarta, comprising a full day on dangerous goods and a half day just on the dangers of lithium batteries as air cargo.

“China is such a huge manufacturing source of lithium batteries and batteries in equipment. In Guangzhou in particular we had a great deal of interest and engagement from the Chinese battery associations, because they too are concerned.”

Brennan emphasises that the big name manufacturers and their suppliers act responsibly, and that is the smaller operators who pose the most risk.

But all it takes is for a major incident involving lithium batteries on a passenger plane, and then the regulators may take steps that penalise those responsible shippers.

In terms of a broader regulatory approach, along the entire supply chain, Brennan added: "This is bigger than an air transport issue, and this is where we have some jurisdictional challenges. I criticise the civil aviation authorities (CAAs) now and again, because I don’t think they do enough."

Because the CAAs do not have jurisdiction beyond aviation, they cannot walk into a factory making lithium batteries to test that they meet the required manufacturing standards.

There are also cross-border issues, in that the country of manufacture may not be the country of flight departure.

Said Brennan: “This needs a bigger government engagement, particularly from whoever controls manufacturing.”

But regulators need teeth: “We have seen on a number of occasions where there are incidents were there’s been no enforcement action taken against the shipper who has put the air transport risk. And that really has to change.”

There have been some changes. An ICAO dangerous goods panel meeting in October agreed that the state of charge for lithium batteries should be no more than 30%, a limit that inhibits thermal runaway. The regulation still has to be ratified.

Some parties at the ICAO meeting called for a complete ban on lithium batteries, both in passenger baggage and as cargo, but this was not carried.

Said Brennan: “The panel did not support the prohibition of lithium batteries because it did not believe that a ban was appropriate. However, we have implemented some additional safety measures [30% state of charge] which will allow batteries to still keep moving as cargo, but improve safety very significantly.”

Another change concerns a tightening up of the regulations around the packaging of lithium batteries, which is limited to two per box. Some shippers have put multiples of two-battery packs within the same consignment. This will be stopped.

If a shipper wants to have a bulk shipment then they will have to do down the full regulatory path in order to send the goods by air.