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Rogue lithium battery shipments pose risk to airline safety: IATA

The risks to aviation safety of lithium battery fires are well documented here at Runway Girl Network, and those risks are growing exponentially as we become more dependent on the digital devices that use these power sources.

During the International Air Transport Association’s Global Media Days this week in Geneva, IATA SVP airport, passenger, cargo, security Nick Careen said the high demand for lithium batteries – with market growth projections (CAGR) of approximately 22% between 2019 and 2024 – make it more tempting for bad actors to try to sneak shipments on board passenger aircraft.

While lithium battery shipments are still allowed on cargo aircraft, ICAO banned carriage of these batteries on passenger aircraft in 2016. But rogue shippers are disregarding the ban and airlines are calling on governments to crack down on false shipping declarations and battery counterfeiters.

IATA also wants passengers to understand the dangers of rogue battery shipments and only buy batteries from legitimate sources.

“Our members are seeing an increase in the number of incidents in which rogue shippers are not complying,” Careen said. IATA was not able to provide figures on the increase, when asked, in part because airlines do not always share this information.

A central incident reporting system for aviation safety issues, with data to be shared among IATA members, is in the works. But IATA has enough anecdotal information from members to be concerned. For example, in once incident, a shipper had declared 2,000kg of lithium batteries as children’s toys and clothing in an attempt to sneak the shipment on a passenger flight and avoid paying higher cargo charges.


Regardless of how lithium battery shipments get on board, protecting aircraft against potential battery fires is key. A dedicated committee at SAE Aerospace has been working on drafting standards for the design, development and testing of fire containment covers and fire resistant ULD (Unit Load Device) aircraft shipping containers that would be capable of withstanding the high heat and intensity of fires resulting from thermal runaway.

The FAA’s Fire Safety Branch is assisting SAE in developing testing standards, including for burn lab design, and considering fire temperature limits and flammable gas build-up.

The expectation is that standards will be drafted by the end of 2020 so that cargo covers and ULDs can be tested and formally approved by aviation regulators, but it won’t be immediate. Once the SAE standards are completed, the ICAO Dangerous Goods Panel (DGP) will have to evaluate them, consider their implications to operations, and then recommend adoption to the ICAO Air Navigation Commission (ANC). The ANC would then decide whether to recommend that the ICAO Council formally include these standards in the ICAO Technical Instructions.

IATA believes that adoption of testing standards and approval of thermal runaway fire-protection systems might ultimately result in a lifting of the prohibition on the carriage of lithium batteries, both metal and ion, as cargo on passenger aircraft.

Airlines argue that some of these battery shipments may be needed for critical health services and other time-sensitive applications, where shipping by air on passenger routes makes most sense. IATA also maintains ongoing dialogue with organizations representing battery manufacturers to find viable solutions. And, of course, there is a profit to be made in being able to support the technology supply chain. They hope that developments in fire-retardant containers can re-open business opportunities.

A possible reversal of the passenger aircraft ban may not be welcome news to some unions and consumer groups, however. They may argue that the carriage of lithium batteries even on cargo aircraft poses too high a risk. After all, these batteries have been linked to cargo aircraft tragedies, and cargo pilots should have as much right to fly safely as anyone else.

Airframers have warned that the fire suppression systems in aircraft cargo compartments may not be able to cope with a fire involving large quantities of lithium ion batteries. They recommend that airlines perform a safety risk assessment to minimize the risks, and IATA has developed a safety risk assessment for members. One restriction introduced for safety is that lithium ion batteries shipped on cargo aircraft cannot be more than 30% charged.

IATA seemed to play down the risk of lithium ion battery fires in the cabin, of which there have been several documented incidents. “Occasional incidents have occurred with malfunctioning or damaged batteries or with PEDs being crushed in seats, but these do not merit a blanket ban,” IATA writes in its battery shipments fact-sheet shared with the media.

“IATA with ICAO has developed comprehensive guidance for cabin crew on how to safely deal with a fire in the cabin involving a lithium-battery-powered PED.”

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