In March 2022, for example, Qatar Airways diverted a New Delhi-Doha flight to Karachi in Pakistan following the detection of smoke in the cargo hold. The incident is thought to have been caused by lithium batteries.
Unless remedial action is taken, the risk caused by the transport of lithium batteries will only increase. This is due to the accelerating rate of improvement in the energy density of a battery. Consumers are demanding more from their battery life and capability, and manufacturers are working hard to deliver.
Regulations cannot match this pace of development, rarely proceeding at anything other than a glacial pace.
“This issue is not getting the attention it deserves,” said Andres Bianchi, CEO LATAM Cargo, at the 78th IATA AGM in Doha. “It is my first concern from a safety perspective.”
A four-step process will go some way to mitigating the danger. The first step is creating awareness. The lithium battery market is growing 30% annually, bringing many new shippers into air cargo supply chains. But compliance with existing regulations is difficult as they are complex and can be hard to understand.
This creates an evolving risk of undeclared or mis-declared shipments.
The aim is to help shippers understand the potential risk and whether there are dangerous goods in what they are trying to ship.
The second step is appropriate standards, processes, and regulation. IATA has called for the development of outcome-based, harmonized safety-related screening standards and processes for lithium batteries. This would support the safe transport of lithium batteries and provide an efficient process for compliant shippers of lithium batteries.
Safety data collection and sharing information between governments is also critical. Without sufficient relevant data there is little ability to understand the effectiveness of any measures. Better information sharing and coordination on lithium battery incidents among governments and with the industry is essential to help managing lithium battery risks effectively.
But just as important as the regulations are the tools for enforcement—the third process step—should shippers disregard the rules. IATA has long suggested that there should be stiffer penalties for rogue shippers and the criminalization of egregious or wilful offenses.
Enforcement is difficult, however, because of international jurisdictions and, of course, there can be genuine mistakes. Nevertheless, governments need to ensure that rules are followed and effective deterrents for potential offenders are in place.
Finally, there needs to be better protective measures if there is a lithium battery incident. Qatar Airways is reported to be investing in fire resistant aircraft containers for example. Airlines need to know they can contain a fire involving lithium batteries loaded into aircraft cargo compartments. Fire-resistant aircraft containers, fire containment covers for aircraft pallets, and fire containment bags are all possibilities.
The development and implementation of a fire-testing standard is vital. Governments must develop a testing standard for fires involving lithium batteries that can be used to evaluate supplementary protection measures over and above the existing cargo compartment fire suppression systems.
Action to date
Airlines, shippers, and manufacturers have been working hard to ensure lithium batteries can be carried safely. Actions have included:
- Updates to the Dangerous Goods Regulations and the development of supplementary guidance material,
- The launch of a Dangerous Goods Occurrence Reporting Alert System that provides a mechanism for airlines to share information on events involving undeclared or misdeclared dangerous goods,
- The development of a Safety Risk Management Framework specifically for the carriage of lithium batteries.
- The launch of CEIV Lithium Batteries to improve the safe handling and transport of lithium batteries across the supply chain.
“Airlines, shippers, manufacturers, and governments all want to ensure the safe transport of lithium batteries by air. It’s a joint responsibility. The industry is raising the bar to consistently apply existing standards and share critical information on rogue shippers. But there are some areas where the leadership of governments is critical. Stronger enforcement of existing regulations and the criminalization of abuses will send a strong signal to rogue shippers. And the accelerated development of standards for screening, information exchange, and fire containment will give the industry even more effective tools to work with,” said Willie Walsh, IATA’s Director General.