How many lines have been written during the past two years regarding the safe transport of lithium-ion batteries by air. After the tragic accidents with two freighters whereby it is still thought that they were lost due to lithium-ion batteries catching fire in flight, there was a rush from all sides to come up with strict guidelines for the acceptance and transport of this volatile freight.
Have lessons been learnt?
One would have hoped so, but the truth is that despite many good efforts from various regulatory bodies, it seems that many in the industry are just as much in the dark as they were two to three years ago.
There are now strict ICAO/IATA regulations as far as the acceptance and transport of lithium-ion by air is concerned, but who is really taking notice of them, acting accordingly and ensuring that staff are properly trained? This by the way does not only apply to lithium-ion being carried as freight on passenger or cargo aircraft; but also what passengers place in their checked baggage and take on board with them.
There have been numerous incidents over the past twelve months where lithium-ion battery packs which were bundled together in passengers cabin baggage have overheated and caught fire. It should by now be common knowledge that as a passenger you should not place such material in your checked baggage and be extremely careful as to how many extra mobile or computer batteries you have with you. The airlines should be checking this, but how many actually ask passengers if or what they have in their bags. There are regulations, but it seems that they differ from carrier to carrier. Freight carrier AeroLogic or instance imposed a strict ban on Samsung Galaxy S7 cell phones to be brought on board after a number of incidents occured. No matter if they are couriers accompanying a shipments or grooms looking after horses during a flight.
USA taking the lead again
The U.S. Department of Transport (DoT) has lately announced that they want to step up restrictions for the transport of Li-ion as cargo on both passenger and freighter aircraft. The DoT has been working closely with the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) on this and are expected to issue their updated regulations very shortly. As far as passenger aircraft are concerned these new regulations will only apply for freight carried in the belly holds and not restrict what passengers may themselves bring on board. Lithium-ion shipments will be banned as freight in the belly holds of passenger aircraft. Finally, those at the top realise that if not correctly packed or loaded too tight together, that Li-ion shipments can (and have done) catch fire and generate an enormous heat in the belly hold, which in a worse case scenario will ensure that a fire cannot be extinguished.
It would be of benefit to all if the DoT and FAA were also to insist on a strict passenger baggage control for Li-ion carriage. The regulations should be of a global nature and not just one-sided.
Freighters get different rules
Here, a seemingly complicated ruling is meant to come into operation.
For example: If a Li-ion pack is “traveling naked“ and not enclosed in another container, then it may only be charged up to 30% of its maximum capacity. However if there is a shipment of notebooks on board, no matter how large, then the Li-ion cells can be fully charged. The argument here is that due to the fact that they are enclosed in a shell that the chance of an overheat chain reaction is much lower.
Is the above theory or based on factual testing results for such incidents?
The DoT has issued a new 90 page Hazmat document with regards to the new rulings and it needs careful study. It can be downloaded from the DoT’s website under www.phmsa.dot.gov.
IATA also has a 20-page document named Lithium Battery Shipping Guidelines.
Both are maybe good guidelines for future passenger check in and freight staff training purposes.
John Mc Donagh