The safe transport by air of lithium batteries has been the subject of many discussions during the past four to five years. This has been regretfully highlighted by the loss of freighter
aircraft and their crews. Probably, but not yet 100% proven, because of improper packaging and transport of this type of cargo. CargoForwarder Global, in various articles on this, has been
campaigning for a stricter control by the world’s aviation authorities.
Has this started to take effect?
Past fatal accidents could have been avoided
There have been quite a number of incidents whereby lithium packs in passenger checked baggage in belly holds have overheated and have resulted in aircraft being forced to divert as a safety measures. Thankfully, so far there has not been a loss of a passenger aircraft because of this. But, is that just ‘Murphy’s Law,’ keeping the inevitable away? Hopefully not.
However, there is still the question as to what really brought down the three freighter aircraft in 2006, 2010 and 2011, all of which were carrying large quantities of lithium packs which in some cases were loaded together with flammable liquids and other corrosive cargo. It is more or less proven that the Asiana B747F which was lost with both crew members in 2011 had an uncontrollable fire near the aft bulkhead where just over 2 tons of dangerous goods, including lithium batteries were loaded together. The same was the case for UPS flight 6 which after departing Dubai also had a fire on board on positions 4 and 5 where combustible materials along with lithium batteries were loaded. The aircraft became uncontrollable and crashed with both crew perishing.
Time from ignition to uncontrollable fire is short, IATA
Both fatal accidents have many parallels including the fact that the fires broke out relatively early (50 & 22 minutes) into flight, with dense smoke quickly overcoming the crew and severely restricting their ability to get safely back to an airport. The third accident in 2006, a UPS DC8-71F was on final approach to Philadelphia when fire broke out and quickly spread to the lithium cargo on board. The crew managed to land the aircraft, saved themselves, but the DC-8F was destroyed.
According to an IATA report on all three incidents, ‘it is clear that once there is a fire with large quantities of lithium batteries, the time from ignition to uncontrollable fire is quite short.’ In the case of the Asiana and UPS flights - 17 minutes, 23 minutes and 27 minutes respectively.
The risk is still too great
The main risk lies with those who produce and package lithium components which are moved by air. The majority are still produced in China and one has to wonder whether there has been any real move to scrutinize how this type of cargo is packaged before loading on aircraft. The U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) has prohibited the transportation of lithium-ion cells and batteries as cargo on passenger flights as well as issuing some new requirements for the same cargo being transported on freighters.
But, is this enough and which body is regularly controlling this?
Peculiar charging rules
The new cargo aircraft regulation stipulates that lithium cells and batteries may only be accepted and carried on freighters when they are ‘at not more than 30 percent state of charge.’ This, the DOT states is aimed at ‘preventing an in-flight fire caused by a thermal runaway, a chain reaction in which lithium battery cells overheat and burn.’
But, is this enough and how are airlines or handling agents able to control whether the 30 percent battery charge is being adhered to?
Strangely enough, the 30 percent charge ruling does not apply to lithium cells which are packed or contained in electronic devices - i.e. mobile phone or laptop shipments.
Someone has to explain to me the sense of that!
Finding practical solutions is essential
Despite, in my view, all the uncertainty as to what has been done to ensure a fail-safe transport of lithium cargo, IATA and other bodies are still endeavoring to get their heads around the problem.
In June of this year the UK Civil Aviation Authority (UK CAA) set up the first international workshop relating to the safe air transport of lithium batteries. This event was fully supported by IATA and was attended by over 70 representatives from varying sectors concerned with lithium production, testing and the logistical transport chain.
Here, it also became clear that a solution has to be found to detect and ban low quality and counterfeit lithium-ion cells and batteries from entering aircraft. A Herculian task considering that there are literally thousands of small companies, mainly in the Far East, producing them.
It was clear that false cargo declarations are commonplace and that a first move is to better educate agencies and enforcement authorities on how to identify rogue shipments.
These were just a few of many suggestions - but who is going to follow through on these in the coming years?
John Mc Donagh