Industry concerns remain high on lithium batteries

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Lithium battery

Lithium batteries and their safety continue to dominate the dangerous goods (DGR) agenda in the airfreight industry.

Cargoes of lithium batteries were implicated in fires which destroyed a UPS aircraft in Philadelphia in 2006, caused UPS Flight 6 to fatally crash in Dubai in 2010 and the loss of Asiana Airlines Flight 991 near South Korea in 2011.

As the US Federal Aviation Administration determined in 2015 “the uncontrollability of lithium battery fires can ultimately negate the capability of current aircraft cargo fire suppression systems and can lead to a catastrophic failure of the airframe”.

Currently standalone lithium-ion batteries and lithium metal batteries are banned as cargo from passenger aircraft.

For transportation on freighters there are a long list of regulations regarding classification of lithium batteries and their packaging and labelling.

The batteries must also be charged to no more than 30 per cent to reduce the fire risk.

“Lithium batteries are the top item in our areas of concern and that dates back to those three aircraft incidents,” says the International Air Transport Association’s (IATA) assistant director for cargo safety & standards, Dave Brennan.

“The behaviour of these batteries when involved in a fire and their movement in an aircraft are of real concern. Our members are particularly worried about proper enforcement of current regulations. Where shippers are following the correct testing, labelling and packaging instructions we don’t see a problem but, some through ignorance and others through more malicious intent, are not doing this properly and failing to disclose lithium batteries in their cargo.

“They label that their package contains mobile accessories with no batteries but in reality it is full of batteries. They do this because they think they will save money.”

Brennan says this is a growing problem particularly with the continued boom in e-commerce.

“Often the sellers, who are working out of their home, have no idea that either DGR regulations exist or that the product they are shipping comes under that category because of the involvement of lithium batteries,” he explains.

“We would like the providers such as eBay to take some more responsibility and educate their sellers better.”

Brennan also calls on Government regulators to properly enforce the regulations.

“We expect them to go after these shippers. We expect them to jump on them with both feet but they spend too much time at airports looking at the airlines.

“They already have a good understanding, regulators instead need to look upstream in the supply chain,” he states.

“Part of the challenge they face is cross-border movements. For example, if a Chinese shipper wants to move their cargo through Hong Kong, and it goes by road or sea to there and there is an issue with it then who has the regulatory authority? There is a jurisdictional gap which needs to be fixed. Governments also need to see this holistically, not just as an air transport issue,” he adds.

KLM Cargo director for operational integrity, compliance & safety, Kester Meijer, agrees there is an extra onus on shippers to fully understand the risks and hazards of DGR transportation.

“These types of batteries are in many products ordered online around the world and demand is rising from electronics to automotive,” he says.

“DGR is a difficult animal. In the past many of these shippers, such as electronic manufacturers, did not come under dangerous goods but now, with lithium batteries inside or alongside their product, they do.

“Do these producers and shippers have the basic knowledge around DGR to ensure safe movements? Do they understand or want to do the extra checks that are needed?”

Meijer fears not and says a certification scheme to validate and audit shippers who are transporting lithium batteries through the air may be necessary.

He believes this would make the movement of DGR safer and more efficient throughout the supply chain.

“At present the first moment when the dangerous goods regulations come into force in the supply chain is with freight forwarders,” he says.

“It needs to be earlier in the process with the shippers. It also needs to cover mail postal operators where dangerous goods could be present in a mail bag.

“Yes, they have to follow regulations from ICAO, the International Civil Aviation Authorities and IATA, but to what extent have they trained their own people in these rules?

“The volumes of e-commerce parcels are so great with a number of small packages that it makes the process very difficult.”