Some members of the public seem to think so, and airlines are responding in kind. United Airlines recently joined Delta Airlines in banning all bulk shipments of rechargeable lithium ion batteries. Other major airlines are contemplating the adoption of a similar policy, if they haven't already.
They are likely responding to a recent paper by the International Coordination Council for Aerospace Industry Associations (ICCAIA), a group that represents aircraft manufacturers, and the International Federation of Airline Pilots Association (IFALPA). The two groups cited studies by the Federal Aviation Administration, saying that tests conducted at the agency's technical center have shown that "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."
Lithium batteries cause fires that can’t be extinguished: that’s scary stuff. There are an estimated 18 billion of them shipped each year. So should they never take to the air?
Bob Richard, vice president of regulatory affairs with Labelmaster, calls that policy an overreaction. He admits that recent airplane fires blamed on lithium batteries are cause for concern. But he says that nearly all of those 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.”
The problem isn’t lithium batteries, he says. It’s the way in which they are packaged and shipped – often in violation of airline and government-imposed safety rules.
Many shippers either aren’t taking the time to ensure full compliance with the regulations, or they’re intentionally violating them. They might even be shipping counterfeit product that doesn’t meet manufacturing standards.
Making matters worse are claims by regulators and enforcement agencies that they lack the jurisdiction to hold miscreants accountable in certain regions of the world. “In light of the associated risks and impacts to compliant companies, this is extremely alarming,” says Richard.
Airlines and regulators have been focusing intensely on the topic in recent years. At a recent meeting in Montreal of the Dangerous Goods Panel of the International Civil Aviation Organization and the United Nations subcommittee on the transportation of dangerous goods, approximately 90 percent of the agenda was taken up by discussion of lithium batteries, Richard says.
All that talk, however, isn’t necessarily leading to a constructive solution. Governments warn of a ban on the shipment of lithium batteries by air, and airlines respond with their own strict measures. But “nobody knows what they want [shippers] to do to manage the risk,” Richard says. They won’t specify tougher performance standards for packaging or transport. Meanwhile, shippers and carriers risk investing in practices and materials that could be rendered obsolete, should regulators come out with new standards at some future date.
More regulations or outright bans won’t solve the problem. On the contrary, they could exacerbate it, if rogue shippers deliberately misdeclare lithium batteries in order to get past the moratorium.
But industry shouldn’t be standing idle while regulators make up their minds about the issue. Richard says manufacturers and shippers ought to be investing in a variety of new technologies and materials that will augment the safety of lithium batteries in transit. Some new packaging options can prevent, contain or even extinguish a fire.
The solution isn’t going to be cheap. Richard says Labelmaster has been exploring various new materials and technology, even if that means placing a $50 battery in a $100 package. Other possible solutions including fireproof blankets, newly designed unit-load devices, and improved fire-suppression systems. Big parcel shippers such as UPS and FedEx are already moving in that direction, Richard says.
Some of those measures could have been taken much earlier. Ten years ago, the National Transportation Safety Board recommended that cargo planes be fitted with new fire-suppression systems, says Richard. But FAA said at the time that the measure “wasn’t cost-beneficial.”
It’s becoming increasingly difficult to overlook the problem now. NTSB blamed the 2013 fire aboard a Boeing 787 at Boston’s Logan Airport on design flaws in the lithium ion battery that was incorporated into the aircraft. This despite the fact that the battery had been certified by FAA. If a lithium battery that’s designed to operate a plane isn’t safe, what’s to be said about others that are just going along for the ride?
Enforcement of the existing rules range from confusing to non-existent. Southern China apparently lacks regulations for the movement of lithium batteries by ground transport. And when it comes to shipping them out of Hong Kong by air, the local civil aviation authority and Chinese government claim to lack jurisdiction over non-compliant shippers and carriers. That places the onus for enforcement on the airlines, which have responded by refusing to accept any lithium batteries out of Hong Kong at all – compliant or otherwise. Similar restrictions have been put into place in Australia.
For most international battery shippers, it’s air or nothing. Ocean transport isn’t an acceptable alternative, given the long transit time, and possibility of damage to the product in a saltwater environment.
“I have clients with supply chains that are being impacted right now,” says Richard. Some are surprised to learn of the bans, which haven’t being well-advertised.
The long-term solution lies in stricter enforcement of existing rules, and better coordination among regulatory bodies. Richard says inspectors could visit shippers’ facilities and demand to see the types of batteries they’re shipping, the packaging they’re using, and reports that validate proper testing.
Such a plan would require a far greater investment in people and training, along with a clarification of regulatory roles. In the meantime, we swing from a lack of enforcement to overreaction by the airlines. Absent any progress on that front, “Supply chains are going to be seriously impacted,” says Richard. “There’s no doubt about it.”
Here’s a short video from Bob Richard on the risks and regulations associated with the shipping of lithium batteries.