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Dangerous goods: transporting lithium-ion batteries

Dangerous goods batteries

Satu Dahl explores the issues for airlines around transporting lithium-ion batteries and looks into products that ensure the safety of such operations

As consumer demand for lithium batteries grows rapidly, so does the number of incidents involving misdeclared or undeclared lithium batteries. The batteries, classified as dangerous goods, are safe to transport provided that correct procedures are followed according to international regulations and standards. However, this doesn’t always happen. “We are seeing an increase in the number of incidents where rogue shippers are not complying,” IATA’s senior vice-president of airport, passenger, cargo and security, Nick Careen noted in December.

It’s no wonder, then, that the aviation industry is amplifying its efforts to ensure the safe transportation of these goods. IATA, TIACA, the Global Shippers Forum (GSF) and the International Federation of Freight Forwarders Associations (FIATA) have renewed calls for governments to crack down on manufacturers of counterfeit batteries and to prevent mislabelled and non-compliant shipments by issuing and enforcing criminal sanctions on those responsible.

The efforts by the associations include new initiatives such as an awareness campaign communicating the dangers of shipping undeclared and misdeclared lithium batteries or other dangerous goods, as well as an information-sharing platform to target misdeclared consignments. The industry is also calling for a joined-up approach and support for an initiative by the UK, New Zealand, France and the Netherlands to adopt a cross-domain system that would include aviation security, manufacturing standards, customs and consumer protection agencies. Currently, air cargo is scanned for items that pose a risk to security, such as explosives, but not for safety when it comes to items such as lithium batteries.

Preventing danger

So, how are airlines responding to the issue? Many cargo carriers are investing in specialised products. One example is Azerbaijan-based cargo airline Silk Way West, which recently announced it had invested in fire containment products by AMSafe Bridport to ensure the safety of its expanding fleet of Boeing 747-400F and 747-8F aircraft.

“We are spearheading the development, which will be crucial to our future operation as we are seeing a surge of Li-ion battery content within the cargo volumes we are transporting throughout our global network. We have opted for Mantle from AmSafe Bridport to carry on a pioneering role in our industry,” CEO of Silk Way West Airlines Wolfgang Meier commented at the time of the purchase.

“We are further investing in cargo and flight safety measures, and I am happy we have found a robust, yet cost-effective solution,” added Silk Way West vice-president of global cargo logistics, Emile Khasanshin. Silk Way West Airlines operates a global cargo network connecting more than 45 destinations on a scheduled basis via its global hub in Baku.

AmSafe Bridport, an engineering textile solutions provider for aerospace, ground transportation and defence, says it started product development for its fire containment solutions 15 years ago. The company has since sold its products to many airlines around the world. Currently, in addition to Silk Way West, AmSafe Bridport’s fire containment solutions are used by carriers such as UPS, Blue Dart, Cathay Pacific, Tasman Cargo, Cargolux and Lufthansa.

Recent incidents

AmSafe Bridport’s product range includes fire containment covers for pallets and containers, as well as fire containment pouches and bags. The company developed the bags around six years ago as a product extension for its fire containment covers. The products can be custom-made to customers’ requirements, and are able to handle battery fires in real-life cargo incidents.

Tharindu Senanayaka, AmSafe Bridport’s business unit manager for cargo, explains how the company keeps innovating to introduce new solutions in the market. AmSafe Bridport’s latest product is a containment bag for skid pallets which the company has developed following a request from one of the leading airlines in Asia. “This was developed as a product extension for the current bag version. We plan to carry out the 4800 battery full load test in February with this version – we have already done the 2000 battery test successfully.”

AmSafe Bridport says its fire containment covers were the first in the world to be awarded both a Technical Standard Order (TSO-C203) by the FAA and European Technical Standard Order (ETSO-C203) by EASA. The products offer six hours of fire containment during an emergency. The director of operations at AmSafe Bridport, Joe Ashton, noted that due to the continued increase of high-tech electronic equipment containing lithium batteries being shipped by online traders unaware of the dangerous goods regulations, the risk of the next major cargo fire is high. “On average, the pilot and crew have just 17 minutes from the initial notification of an ‘on board’ fire to safely land the aircraft.”

So, how do these products actually work and, if there is a fire, what happens to the flames and smoke? Senanayaka explains that flames will be contained by the company’s products, but some smoke will be allowed to come out so that smoke alarms can detect the fire. To date, there have been instances of lithium-ion battery fires where these products have prevented a major incident, with president of AmSafe Bridport Jason Abbott stating the industry has witnessed recent incidents where two main carriers effectively contained lithium-ion cargo fires with Mantle fire containment covers.

Safe charters

Pierre Van Der Stichele, group cargo operations director at aircraft charter and aviation support company Chapman Freeborn, says the airline is seeing high demand for lithium battery transportation. “More frequently than ever, Chapman Freeborn is called upon by our clients to transport lithium-ion batteries as part of a shipment.

“Although perfectly safe when certain precautions are met, lithium-ion batteries are regarded as dangerous goods and are subject to specific safety regulations regarding their movement. The transportation by air of dangerous goods is regulated by IATA and the International Civil Aviation Organisation, which ultimately decides exactly what is allowed on certain types of flights.”

Van Der Stichele says the most prohibitive lithium-ion battery is classified as IATA UN3090, which relates to bare batteries with exposed terminals. “UN numbers (or IDs) are four-digit numbers that are used to identify and classify dangerous goods in the context of international transportation.”

He notes that UN3090 lithium-ion batteries are generally highly flammable and are not allowed as ‘belly’ cargo on passenger flights. Furthermore, according to Van Der Stichele, most scheduled cargo carriers will refuse UN3090 on their network entirely. “This means the transportation by air is limited to the kind of specialist cargo carriers that will accept UN3090.” These carriers are required to hold a dangerous goods license and employ crews that can recognise and identify whether the cargo is packed correctly and according to IATA precautionary specifications.

Van Der Stichele says it is the company’s duty to select a carrier that is fully licenced and capable of transporting the individual types of dangerous goods. Therefore, understanding the intricacies of the various UN classifications is vital. However, Van Der Stichele adds that that it is ultimately the client’s responsibility to ensure that the cargo has been packaged properly and according to the IATA regulations.

“In addition to UN3090, there are other types of batteries and UN classification such as UN3091, which includes batteries inserted into a unit – cell phones or laptops, for example –  where the battery terminals are enclosed in a casing and not exposed. However, they are still considered dangerous goods and require the same level of coordination and planning when transporting via air,” notes Van Der Stichele.

Strict penalties required

While the aviation industry is clearly working hard to prevent dangerous situations, governments around the world must also play their part. Significant fines and penalties should be imposed for those who circumvent regulations regarding the transport of lithium batteries, according to industry operators.

“We have seen high interest from the regulators on the issue of lithium batteries not that long ago, and it did help to improve the situation. We are asking governments to put this problem on the top of their agendas once again,” concludes TIACA secretary general Vladimir Zubkov.

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