There have been a number of recent news media accounts related to the transport of lithium batteries aboard aircraft. While the air transport of lithium cells and batteries is fundamentally safe, there have been occurrences that should raise concern.
Almost all of the incidents lack conclusive evidence to suggest that compliant shipments of lithium batteries pose any more risk than other hazardous materials frequently carried aboard aircraft, including explosives, flammable gases, corrosive materials and many others. What they do reveal is that non-compliant and undeclared lithium battery shipments are offered to airlines all too frequently. In addition, there is a lack of safety oversight of shippers who either don’t take the time and effort to comply with safety regulations and best shipping practices or intentionally violate regulations.
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Regulators and enforcement agencies in certain regions claim they don’t have appropriate jurisdiction to hold those responsible for non-compliant or undeclared shipments accountable. In light of the associated risks and impacts to compliant companies, this is extremely alarming.
The public sees the media stories and concludes, not unreasonably, that lithium batteries shouldn’t be transported by aircraft and in particular on passenger planes. Regulators continue to propose more regulations, and airlines, who are pressured by their pilots, employees and liability concerns, are imposing restrictions beyond regulatory requirements in response. Just this week a number of airlines imposed embargoes on shipments originating in Hong Kong (Fig. 1).
Generally one would think these are positive actions, but imposing more regulations and restrictions on cargo will not improve compliance of those shippers who intentionally violate regulations. Such developments will have ripple effects on the U.S. economy and compliant companies. In fact, more onerous regulations will only result in pushing more non-compliant shipments “underground.” There are other underlying consequences. For instance, how will consumers react when products they rely on are impacted?
A recent paper submitted to the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) Dangerous Goods Panel by the International Coordination Council for Aerospace Industry Association (ICCAIA), which represents aircraft manufacturers such as Boeing and Airbus and the International Federation of Airline Pilots Association (IFALPA), caused ripple effects throughout the industry. The paper cites FAA testing and studies that indicates, “Testing conducted at the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) Technical Center has shown 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.”
The paper also states, “New findings, confirmed by FAA tests and expertise from industry, show that electrolyte gases exhausted during the propagation of both lithium metal and lithium ion battery thermal runaway events create an explosive atmosphere when contained inside an enclosed space (such as load devices (container, covered pallet) or cargo compartments.)”
This puts airline carriers in an awkward position. Several have taken matters into their own hands and are prohibiting shipments of lithium batteries on their aircraft. For instance, Delta, American and United Airlines have imposed restrictions even for smaller lithium batteries. Recently a United spokesman stated, “While the risk is minimal, United has chosen to eliminate this potential risk by no longer accepting or loading any bulk shipments of UN3480 lithium ion batteries.” One has to wonder how many other airlines will follow suit. One well respected high level cargo airline safety official recently stated that he spends more than 80% of his time addressing concerns about how to safely transport lithium batteries.
Restrictions implemented without appropriate consideration of the implications outside of aviation safety can have serious and adverse impacts to public safety and health. For example, lithium batteries are used in medical devices, weather monitoring and warning systems, criminal and terrorist surveillance systems, disaster relief products, emergency response and security equipment among other applications. A regulation reducing a target risk for one area of focus may increase other risks, ultimately resulting in greater loss of life, harm to the environment and to economies.
Safety agencies must be careful to avoid overlooking countervailing risks and examine potential risk trade-offs. They should use a variety of tools that include focused enforcement and aggressive actions against those who commit criminal violations that result in injuries or loss of life. Offering a non-compliant shipment to an airline that results in a fire or significant incident is a criminal offense.
Compliant shippers are typically victims in the aftermath of airline incidents when politicians and regulators rush to impose new regulations. This frequently results in the expenditure of significant resources for compliant companies while non-compliant shippers continue to ignore the law. This is especially true when there is lax enforcement oversight and no consequences for illegal actions. Shippers that continue to offer non-compliant shipments to air carriers need to be held accountable and penalized as a means of changing behaviors that place the public at risk.
Recently IATA members called on governments to criminalize the act of shipping undeclared dangerous goods such as non-compliant lithium battery shipments. James Woodrow, head of IATA’s Cargo Committee and chief of Cathay Pacific Cargo, told the industry it must unite to stop non-declared dangerous goods being sent by air.
Woodrow said, “Flagrant abuses of dangerous goods shipping regulations, which place aircraft safety at risk, must be criminalized, as are other actions which place aircraft safety at risk. Government authorities must step up and take responsibility for regulating producers and exporters.” Woodrow’s suggestion would likely have a greater impact than the development of additional restrictions and regulations that could have the opposite effect and cause an increase in undeclared cargo.
It is not surprising that Cathay Pacific and several other airlines recently announced plans to suspend the carriage of lithium ion batteries (UN3480) on both passenger flights and cargo freighters from China and Hong Kong effective April 15, 2015. Because these airlines currently transport a significant volume of cargo out of Asia and interline with other major carriers such as United Parcel Service, this restriction will significantly impact supply chains for many companies that rely on lithium battery exports from China and Hong Kong.
If international organizations and regulatory agencies paid more attention to better understand the quantities of undeclared and non-compliant lithium battery shipments offered by shippers today, and the impact of increased restrictions on the behavior of these shippers, they could be much more successful implementing measures to reduce non-compliant cargoes and lower the overall risk to the public.
Even with the best safety oversight, both passenger and cargo aircraft still may have undeclared shipments of lithium batteries. Thus, it’s important to ramp up efforts to implement mitigation strategies that enhance oversight, enforcement and improve fire suppression and detection systems on aircraft.
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