Pilots, shippers at odds over ICAO’s battery ban

LioN_Battery_FTVarious aviation groups are still reacting to the International Civil Aviation Organization’s (ICAO) decision to temporarily ban the carriage of lithium batteries as cargo on passenger aircraft until a new packaging standard can be reached. The controversial issue has placed some groups in opposite camps.

For instance, the Air Line Pilots Association, International (ALPA), applauded the ban, saying lithium-ion batteries pose “a significant safety risk on passenger flights,” adding that “more needs to be done to address the situation of bulk shipments of lithium-metal and lithium-ion batteries on cargo aircraft.” However, the Global Shippers’ Forum (GSF) said the decision to implement the ban on April 1 was “disappointing,” because it ran counter to previous recommendations and “does not address the wider problem of undeclared battery shipments or low-quality counterfeits.”

Instead of a ban, GSF said it favors the recommendations by ICAO’s Dangerous Goods Panel last October, which proposed that the shipment of lithium batteries on passenger aircraft should be allowed only if the batteries are charged to a limit not exceeding 30 percent of their full capacity, and that shippers would be limited to just one package per consignment for certain types of battery. This view has also been shared by the International Air Transport Associaiton (IATA).

“GSF is surprised and disappointed that the ICAO National Council has gone against the recommendations of its own experts and instead instigated a ban which does not tackle the issue of undeclared lithium-ion battery shipments or unscrupulous companies deliberately shipping products with lithium batteries as normal cargo,” GSF said in a statement this week. These undeclared batteries, the group added, are more likely to create a fire hazard, and that better screening equipment should be used.

ALPA, however, countered that the ban needs to be extended to cover bulk shipments of batteries on maindeck freighters, as well. While U.S.-based cargo airlines haul the bulk of lithium batteries to North America, “the important ICAO dangerous goods safe transport requirements are exempted from these bulk shipments. This is where the safety risk remains,” the pilots’ union said in a statement earlier this week.

“ALPA supports the continued development of a long-term plan that would allow safe shipment on all aircraft, but the shipments on cargo airlines must be addressed,” the union continued. “If ICAO truly wants to make an impact, then it must deal with lithium battery shipments on cargo aircraft or, at the very least, reverse the exemptions that except these shipments from being fully regulated as dangerous goods.”

ALPA also said it supported the National Transportation Safety Board’s safety recommendations, which called on the U.S. Department of Transportation to regulate battery shipments, and asked the U.S. Congress to pass “meaningful legislation” that will classify lithium batteries as “dangerous goods.”

The ICAO said that once the temporary ban begins on April 1, it will remain in effect until a new lithium-ion battery packaging performance standard can be hammered out – a process that may drag on into 2018 or beyond.

Alex Veitch, GSF’s head of policy, said that the industry must speed up the process to solve this fire safety issue. “ICAO must now act rapidly to agree new packaging standards for lithium-ion batteries,” he said. “We simply cannot wait until 2018 for resolution of the issue. The outright ban on passenger aircraft will cause a major disruption to the global supply chain for essential products vital to international trade.”

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