Friday, February 15, 2013

Lithium Linked Accidents Stops Cargo on Passenger Planes but Air Freight Continues

Dreamliner Scares Wake Up Authorities to Long Standing Concerns
Shipping News Feature

US – JAPAN – WORLDWIDE – Suddenly the news of the recent incidents which grounded the Japanese Boeing Dreamliner fleet has initiated action to prohibit the carriage of lithium ion (Li-ion) aircraft batteries as cargo on passenger planes. The concerns have also caused European aircraft manufacturer Airbus to announce only nickel cadmium cells will be incorporated into their new A350 project but readers of the Handy Shipping Guide will know the concerns that the air freight industry has had for a decade over the battery type.

More than two years ago we wrote of the potential dangers posed after serious concerns over the safety of lithium ion batteries was raised following a report published in October 2009 showing the batteries were implicated in over forty serious incidents stretching back to 1991. Considering the use of such cells was comparatively rare at that time and now they are to be found in a plethora of devices it is hardly surprising that more frequent, and considerably more serious, incidents are now being seen. Within a year of that piece came the crash of an Asiana Airlines freighter in which lithium batteries, carried as cargo, were implicated.

The fateful flight carried several hundred kilogrammes of lithium ion cells in amongst its cargo which comprised mainly electronic devices and whilst over the sea a fire in the cargo hold apparently caused the tragedy costing the lives of the crew. Now the British International Freight Association (BIFA), points out that the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) has provisionally approved an interim amendment that will prohibit the carriage of lithium ion aircraft batteries as cargo on passenger planes with full approval anticipated at the next ICAO Council meeting next month.

The new amendment will rescind ICAO’s recent inclusion of lithium ion aircraft batteries up to 35kg in Special Provision A51 to the UN aviation body’s Technical Instructions for the Safe Transport of Dangerous Goods by Air. Special Provision A51 is designed to provide airlines with the operational flexibility to transport aircraft batteries as cargo on passenger aircraft in special circumstances. The inclusion of lithium ion aircraft batteries in A51 had only become effective on 1 January 2013. ICAO Council President, Roberto Kobeh González was emphatic that safety would always be his organisation’s primary concern saying:

“This amendment to Special Provision A51 is a temporary measure, taken to ensure that safety considerations remain paramount while the related investigations in the United States and Japan remain ongoing. Safety is the number one priority of the aviation community and we are very confident that this situation will eventually be resolved in a manner that further supports air transport’s admirable safety performance while addressing the concerns of all stakeholders impacted by these events.”

Some may be surprised that, given the uncertainty surrounding the safety of lithium at this time, the ICAO boss went on to stress that the new amendment does not place additional restrictions on lithium ion aircraft batteries being carried as cargo on cargo aircraft. Similarly, it will have no impact on the extensive requirements in the ICAO Technical Instructions governing the carriage of other types of lithium ion batteries.

Doubtless all aeroplane manufacturers will avoid the use of lithium in their own planes for now and return to nickel cadmium as used in the Airbus A380 and older Boeing’s but this will be cold comfort to the aircrew of freighters travelling from the Far East with their cargo of modern technologies. One must hope that the $190 million which Asiana Cargo says the 2011 crash cost them will provide sufficient stimulus to encourage sufficient care on all carriers and avoid another entry on what appears to be a long list of related accidents.

A Boeing statement issued on its website dedicated to the Dreamliner incidents simply says the company cannot speculate on the results of ongoing investigations but all 787’s are grounded until the batteries are proven safe to the satisfaction of the Federal Aviation Authority.

Photo: A Li-ion battery box apparently recovered from one of the aircraft concerned.