Lithium Battery Debate Continues Without Solutions

A recent incident on an Ethiopian Airlines passenger flight where lithium batteries in a passenger bag overheated, makes one again wonder how far is the industry in finding a real solution to the dangers of lithium-ion battery carriage.

CargoForwarder Global has been following the “lithium debate” for some time and we still wonder whether the industry is really taking this danger seriously or just sticking its head in the sand and hoping the debate will die down or solve itself.
We don’t claim that nothing is being done, but tend to see little result or change in laws of carriage of what we see as a proven danger to aircraft, passengers and crew members.

Simple - but potentially disastrous
The Ethiopian Airlines incident which occurred on board a B737-800 passenger plane had a happy end for the people on board when alert crew members managed to identify the source of the battery overheat and extinguished it.
A passenger had tied two smart phone batteries together and placed them in the hand luggage. A so-called “melt-down” of the batteries occurred due to their close proximity to another and it was only when they were again separated that they managed to cool down.
Frightening - considering one has to wonder how many other passengers on other flights might have placed such battery components in checked-in baggage.

Reduce the battery charge - reduce the risk? 
The International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) recently came up with the recommendation that lithium batteries carried as cargo on passenger or freighter aircraft should have a maximum of 30% “state-of-charge” before being accepted for carriage.
This ruling they say should be sufficient to improve safety until a standard packaging ruling has been developed and agreed on.
What they don’t tell us how come they reckon that a 30% charging is still safe when a belly hold or main cabin of a freighter is carrying tons of these lithium batteries!
Apart from that - the ICAO’s Dangerous Goods Panel’s recommendation has still to come under review by their own Air Navigation Commission (ANC) and furthermore their findings then have to be brought before the UN Aviation Agency who’s member states, 36 in total, have to review and give a final assessment.
We thought politicians could be long-winded, but this beats all.
The danger is still there!

Shippers of lithium batteries say they welcome stricter rules
It seems that the manufacturers of lithium products have won some more time because of the ICAO recommendation.
Of course it’s in their interest to have a proper and final ruling on how, when and if lithium batteries can be carried by air.
The events of the last years where at least three aircraft have been downed with loss of life due to battery fires on board and many other incidents which have thankfully ended with only a ‘black eye’ for those on board, show that the industry is sitting on a live and ticking time bomb.
We don’t have time to have recommendations bandied back and forth for unlimited time.

It seems that nobody is listening to those who are on the front line
The Airline Pilots Association (ALPA) has been pushing for some time already for a temporary ban on the carriage of lithium batteries until a proven and viable concept is on the table as to how they can be safely transported.
ALPA’s president Tim Canoll is certainly not at all happy with ICAO’s Dangerous Goods Panel’s  findings and in our view quite rightly insists that carriage by air should be banned until improved packaging rules and regulations will definitely guarantee that on-board fires, if they occur, will not spread and be extinguishable within a few moments.
This is the first important move.
But - we are a long way from this and like Tim Canoll, can only hope that no further tragedy will occur before all those responsible come up with one firm solution.

John Mc Donagh

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