Safety rulings come and go regarding the transport of lithium batteries as air cargo, but the debate seems to never really end. After what seemed like a compromise was being reached in the middle of last year, a series of conflicting rulings from the fall of 2015 through the first two months of this year have muddied the waters and prevented consensus on this sensitive issue.
In October 2015, the International Civil Aviation Organization’s (ICAO) Panel on Dangerous Goods voted 11-7 against an outright ban on passenger aircraft carrying lithium batteries as cargo. Then, in December, another ICAO panel on Aircraft Safety voted in favor of a passenger aircraft ban on the rechargeable batteries, a position that was supported by a United Nations advisory panel in January.
To confuse the issue further, in February, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) issued a safety alert urging all U.S. and foreign commercial passenger and cargo airlines to conduct new safety risk assessments to manage fire risks associated with lithium batteries. The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) went a step further by recommending that lithium batteries be physically separated from other flammable materials in cargo holds, and that new limits be placed on the maximum number of lithium batteries per aircraft.
Currently, a bill (H.R. 4441) is making its way through the U.S. Congress to reauthorize the FAA Modernization and Reform Act, which would regulate the transport of lithium batteries in the U.S. and harmonize the regulation language with rules to be decided by the ICAO. The day after a U.S. House committee voted in favor of this harmonization language, Air Cargo World spoke with George Kerchner, executive director of the Rechargeable Battery Association (PRBA), to make some sense of these conflicting safety proposals and discuss how they will affect forwarders.
How will the House bill help shippers and forwarders?
Basically, what H.R. 4441 will do is harmonize U.S. standards with the ICAO’s performance-based standards the rest of the world follows. In 2010, there was a terribly written rule that would have set up different laws that were totally out of snych with the rest of the world. If that had passed, we estimated it would have had an impact of about $1 billion in lost time for shippers and forwarders, and placed them at a huge disadvantage for U.S.-based carriers and manufacturers. Harmonization ensures that there will be a consistent level of safety.
If they’re so controversial, why can’t these batteries get shipped by seafreight instead?
That’s just it – we’ve tried to explain that to the committee members several times. Most lithium-ion batteries already do go by ocean. Those that are shipped in bulk or power things like appliances and power tools are sent by ship all the time. About 70 percent of all the lithium batteries around the world are sent this way. But for those batteries that power in-demand devices, such as the latest laptops, tablets or cell phones, they have to get to market faster, so the remaining 30 percent are sent by air. We’d like to send more on the ocean, because it’s much cheaper, of course, but the market demands it.
Are there any new technological advances that can help reduce the risk of fire?
Yes, one of the most effective has been ICAO’s rule limiting shipped lithium ion batteries to a 30 percent state of charge, which also address the safety concerns the FAA raised in its recent safety alert. Rigorous testing has shown a 30 percent state of charge limit significantly reduces the risks of lithium ion batteries in transport.
What is your opinion on the NTSB’s most recent recommendations?
The NTSB is talking about physically separating lithium batteries from other flammable hazardous materials. We haven’t really seen that kind of proposal before. From what we can tell, this looks like it will be very difficult for carriers to implement.
What are some of the practical ways we can better enforce the current laws?
By stepping up enforcement, this doesn’t mean there will be inspectors walking through your doors to check your cargo loads. This means putting more emphasis on non-compliance from battery shipments out of Asia, which often are knowingly mislabeled as something else. Or sometimes you’ll see a label saying the batteries inside are rated at 99.9 watt-hours, since the limit is 100 watt-hours per battery, when in fact they’re actually 320 or 340 watt-hours. Section 615 [in H.R. 4441] directs the Secretary of Transportation to increase U.S. pressure to see that all shippers, from anywhere in the world, either comply with the rules or are punished.
If this bill passes, do you think it will settle the issue?
Well, we still have a long way to go. We have to get it through the U.S. House and Senate, but it’s hard to say what to expect, especially during an election year. But with the Committee’s favorable action, we look forward to prompt action on the floor.
Photo: George Kerchner