Will New Lithium Battery Guidelines Finally Ensure Safe Transports?

Lithium batteries continue to be transported around the world by air despite much concern by many within the industry as to whether they are safe to transport or whether they should be banned totally from aircraft holds or main decks.

What threat is resulting from lithium batteries when transported by air? The debate goes on  /  source: private
What threat is resulting from lithium batteries when transported by air? The debate goes on / source: private

Three commercial cargo aircraft fires with loss of aircraft and crew between 2006 and 2011 are highly suspected of being caused by overheated lithium batteries in the cargo holds or main decks.
Recent new rules have stipulated that the carriage of this apparent volatile product be further restricted in the bellies of passenger aircraft.
However, a complete ban has so far not been introduced - at least until it can be definitely proven whether they should stay “in or out” of aircraft.

IATA has just issued a 56 page guide on this subject which is meant to give the industry a better insight into the risks involved.
It’s called “Lithium Battery Risk Mitigation Guidance for Operators” and can be downloaded from IATA’s website for free.
It’s well worth reading and distributing within cargo handling and airline circles.
The guideline does not claim to give the answer to whether lithium can continue to be transported by air, but it definitely gives some very interesting insights and ways and means of mitigating risks involved.

The risks still remain
There have been very many incidents in the past years where fire alarms in aircraft holds have been traced back to the storage, carriage or wrongful packing of lithium battery products in passenger baggage.
The IATA paper also concentrates on this issue and gives airlines tips in educating passengers on the risks of having lithium products in their bags.

Kevin Hiatt, IATA’s SVP Safety & Flight Operations says, “lithium batteries are safe to transport provided that they are designed, tested, manufactured and packed in accordance with the global transport safety standards.”

But, is this really the case?
Are they designed, tested and produced as totally “fail-safe?”
The major incidents of the past few years have shown that shipments which allegedly may have started fires in aircraft were packed according to standard regulations.
Where then is the loophole whereby something is not being seen in all of this?
IATA has done a superb job in issuing this document and we highly recommend that it be studied by all.
It would be of great benefit to the industry if shippers, handlers and carriers were to also give their input and suggestions in a concerted and simplified manner and not just leave it to IATA safety experts to come up with all the answers.
Shippers may think they have complied with all necessary regulations, but may also in essence have missed out on some of it. Handlers may not have enough properly trained staff who are in a position to recognize whether “something has slipped through the hole” and thereby presents an unwritten hazard.

Dangerous goods
Lithium batteries are officially listed as Dangerous Goods and are subject to the above mentioned regulatory restrictions.
It becomes apparent when reading IATA’s study that there are many systemic problems with them and that people who are completely unaware of governing dangerous goods regulations and subsequent requirements for the transport of lithium batteries, are shipping them by air and mail.
The same applies to passenger awareness of this potential threat.
A deadly combination!

Carriers take the lead
Those who suffer first and foremost when something goes wrong are the carriers themselves.
We’ve seen this with the tragic UPS and Asiana accidents of the last years whereby both aircraft and crew were lost due to onboard fires maybe related to large quantities of lithium on board.
This so far cannot be proven 100 percent as the total loss of the aircraft concerned makes it almost impossible to determine the root cause.
In the case of the UPS B747-F however, it was determined afterwards that some of the batteries being carried had definitely not complied with then existing regulatory requirements.
Airlines are working hard on ways of better indentifying risks and loopholes with regards to the safe carriage of lithium and other highly volatile products.
UPS for example has since the tragic accident in Dubai spent a lot of time and money on freighter aircraft fire mitigation.
Other carriers have severely restricted or banned any or all products which have lithium content in their belly holds.
But do passengers know enough about this, and if they do how does one guarantee 100 percent adherence?

A total ban is not off the table yet
United Airlines recently issued new restrictions on the carriage of lithium batteries in the holds of their passenger fleet.
It states that bulk shipments of lithium-ion batteries may no longer be stored in sealed containers, but only on open or flat containers.
United’s decision is based on a recent Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) study whereby it claims that this product when loaded in sealed containers and exposed to high heat or fire run a greatly increased rate of explosion.
Well! – I’m not sure that I’d be happy as a passenger with that regulation!
The issue at hand is to ensure that they cannot generate excessive heat leading to a fire hazard, no matter how they are stored, or in which quantities they are carried.

There is, thankfully, positive movement in this direction but is it not high time that the industry reaches a common ruling for all and one which ensures “no risk whatever?”
If any risk continues then a ban on transport by air must be introduced.
Something many don’t want to hear due to the high revenues involved - but what’s more important?

John Mc Donagh

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