About midnight on Feb. 7, 2006, the crew of UPS flight 1307 was alerted to a smoke indication in the cockpit as their DC-8 freighter was on its final approach to Philadelphia International Airport. The pilots immediately evacuated the airplane after landing, escaping with minor injuries as fire destroyed the plane and its cargo on the ground. A little over four years later, UPS Flight 6, a 747-400F flying from Dubai to Cologne also developed an in-flight fire, this time resulting in a devastating crash and the death of two crew members.
Subsequent investigations of both mishaps initially focused on an examination of safety procedures protecting airliners from cockpit smoke. Cargo carried on the flights consisted of the usual mix of commodities found on freight planes flying the late-night skies on their way to make early-morning deliveries. Another similarity between the two is that both contained shipments of lithium batteries. While not definitively determined as the cause of the Philadelphia incident, the report on the Dubai crash indicated that the spontaneous ignition of the contents of a cargo pallet, which contained a significant number of lithium batteries caused the fire.
These and other flights on which lithium batteries were suspected of causing fires may have, to varying degrees, shared the consequences of any growing industry, where there will always be a few manufacturers that make low-quality counterfeits and use inappropriate packaging. But overall, the incidents shared the effects of insufficient government supervision over poor manufacturing standards and illegal declarations of battery shipments as regular cargo.
This lack of government enforcement is why a total ban on bulk shipments of lithium-ion batteries in passenger aircraft bellies, which was announced recently, is a disappointment. The International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) imposition takes effect in April and will remain in force until its work groups decide on a new packaging standard, now expected sometime in 2018. The regulation is binding on all 191 ICAO member states and for the airlines that serve those countries, but is not required of those not participating in ICAO. However, as with many impractical directives, barring these shipments across the board punishes those who abide by the rules, essentially eliminating a significant shipping option, while enabling governments to shirk essential enforcement obligations.
While initial guidance from ICAO and subsequent media reports describing the ruling seemed vague, further clarifications now indicate that the ban does not apply to lithium-ion batteries packed with, or contained within, equipment. Fortunately, this means that computers and phones can still ship in bulk configurations with the batteries included.
We all know the use of lithium-ion batteries has become common in electronics, auto, aircraft and many other industries worldwide. As lithium-ion cell uses increase, their swift and expedited delivery provided by airfreight is forecasted to rise as these industries mature and resulting demand grows.
There is no doubt that lithium-ion batteries, when packed together without the proper packaging and handling precautions, can certainly be dangerous. In 2014, the Federal Aviation Administration applied heat to a container packed with 5,000 lithium-ion batteries that resulted in a thermal runaway and subsequent explosion of flammable gases emitted within the container. Even a favorite fire suppressant, when used, was ineffective in extinguishing the fire. The danger appears to be inherent in all aircraft configurations, passenger or all-cargo. Responding to this evidence, many airlines, including U.S. carriers, voluntarily stopped shipping lithium-ion batteries on their passenger planes.
The FAA’s testing has shown that the risk of lithium-ion battery fires can diminish if the devices are charged only up to 30 percent of their maximum. Perhaps with this in mind, the solution lies in going a step further and shipping the batteries with an even lower charge using existing packaging and packing methods. But it should not stop there.
The private sector, including lithium battery manufacturers working with ICAO and governments, must develop strict certification programs for those making, shipping and handling these cells. Once in effect, vigorous worldwide government oversight of the supply chain must enforce these mutually agreed upon standards. Countries must fulfill a vital role by investing in research and development of lithium battery detection technology and even employing canine screening to find undeclared batteries before they reach the plane.
It is important that governments increase efforts to crack down on battery counterfeiters and those who fail to comply with these enhanced shipping regulations. Others around the world should sanction authorities that fail to enforce global standards through the imposition of trade restrictions designed to correct such negligent behavior. An industry-initiated ban is no substitute for effective government oversight and vigorous enforcement allowing people and batteries to fly safely together.