Flight MH370 and the lithium battery theory


At the time of writing this column, almost four weeks after Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370 vanished from the radar screen on its way from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing on March 8, the aircraft had still not been found despite concerted efforts of Australia, the U.S., China, Malaysia and other countries who assisted one way or another in the search. Worse still, no one had a clue as to what could have caused the aircraft to veer from its northbound course toward the west and possibly southward toward the bowels of an inhospitable area of the Indian Ocean. Inevitably, theories abound. 

A known fact is that the aircraft carried a consignment of lithium ion batteries. The Lithium Battery Guidance Document issued by the International Air Transport Association identifies a lithium ion battery as a type of secondary (rechargeable) battery commonly used in consumer electronics. Included in this category are lithium polymer batteries, which are generally found in mobile phones and laptop computers.

The carriage of lithium ion batteries in the cargo hold of the B777 for Flight MH370 has given rise to the theory that this freight may have caused a fire in the cargo hold, which necessitated the captain to change course toward the west looking for the nearest airport to land.

Another theory – not linked with the lithium ion theory – goes on to say that the crew and passengers could have been incapacitated, causing the aircraft to go on autopilot and crash into the ocean when fuel ran out. The lithium battery theory has been swiftly discounted by some aviation safety experts on the grounds that the 777 aircraft has a system of fire suppression in its cargo hold which would have been activated had there been a fire. Yet other experts appearing on the news reject this theory on the grounds that although flames from ignited lithium batteries may be extinguished, the batteries would still continue to exude lethal gaseous fumes that could leak out of the batteries and incapacitate those on board.

The International Civil Aviation Organization has an entire annex to the Chicago Convention (Annex 18) on the carriage of dangerous goods by air as well as a manual of instructions. The annex clearly identifies requirements that the carrier must comply with when accepting dangerous goods for transport. The operator has to ensure that dangerous goods are accompanied by a completed dangerous goods transport document, except when the technical instructions indicate that such a document is not required. The carrier is also required not to accept dangerous goods until the package, over-pack or freight container containing the dangerous goods has been inspected in accordance with procedures contained in the technical instructions.

The 2009-2010 ICAO Technical Instructions for the Safe Transport of Dangerous Goods by Air incorporated a number of revisions to requirements for the transport of lithium batteries. Revisions included: development of new packing instructions to more clearly state requirements for the various types of lithium batteries; the application of a new lithium battery handling label for certain lithium batteries; and enhanced packaging and revised quantity limits for lithium batteries.

A February 2013 press release issued by ICAO stated that, pending the outcome of investigations by the U.S. and Japan, the ICAO Council provisionally approved an interim amendment that prohibited the carriage of lithium ion aircraft batteries (emphasis on “aircraft” batteries, which may or may not be the same as carried on board the Malaysia Airlines aircraft) as cargo on passenger aircraft. This prohibition came in the aftermath of the grounding of the Boeing Dreamliner by the U.S. and Japan in January 2013. ICAO did not issue a ban on other aircraft battery types.

In February 2012, the ICAO Dangerous Goods Panel developed new safety requirements regarding the transport of lithium batteries by air, which were incorporated into the 2013-2014 Technical Instructions for the Safe Transport of Dangerous Goods by Air. These provisions became effective for many countries on Jan. 1, 2013.    

The instructions are a critical contribution of ICAO to the subject of dangerous goods and safety in air transport. The provisions prescribe the detailed requirements applicable to the international civil transport of dangerous goods by air. The overarching principle of the instructions is that any substance that, as presented for transport, is liable to explode, dangerously react, produce a flame or dangerous emission of heat or toxic, corrosive or flammable gases or vapors under conditions normally encountered in transport must not be carried in aircraft under any circumstances.

All we know is that the Malaysian aircraft in question carried a consignment of lithium batteries.  If these batteries are found to have caused the disappearance of Flight MH370, liability issues that might result could indeed be interesting. It is a discussion for another day.

Ruwantissa Abeyratne has worked in aviation management for 30 years and was a senior professional at the International Civil Aviation Organization for 23 years.
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