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IATA Updates Lithium Battery Transport Guidelines

In the 56th edition of its Dangerous Goods Regulations, to take effect on 1 January 2015, IATA has made changes which reflect the updated 18th edition UN Model Regulations, including the determinations by UN Subcommittee of Experts on the Transport of Dangerous goods.

These changes include changes to packing instructions and a prohibition on the carriage of lithium metal batteries (UN 3090 category Hazardous-Materials) as cargo on passenger aircraft.

The airline group has also published a rreference document of the changes incorporated into this 56th edition, which include guidelines on Lithium batteries on the personal electronic devices of passengers and crew.

2.3—Dangerous Goods Carried by Passengers or Crew

The provisions applicable to portable electronic devices, including medical devices containing lithium batteries and spare batteries have been restructured to set the requirements out in three parts:

  1. Spare lithium batteries above a specified size, which are permitted only with the approval of the operator, and that must be in carry-on baggage;
  2. Lithium battery powered electronic devices containing batteries above a specified size, which are permitted only with the approval of the operator; and
  3. Portable electronic devices (PED) and spare batteries for such devices where the batteries are at or below the specified size which are permitted without operator approval. PED may be in checked or carry- on baggage. All spare batteries must be in carry-on baggage.

IATA made the risks associated with the carriage of Lithium batteries, including those carried on our personal devices, a focus of its Cabin Operations Safety Conference in Madrid earlier this year. While incidents of fires in the cabin started by faulty lithium-powered personal electronic devices have been few, thermal runway fires at high temperatures (up to 500°C/932°F) make lithium batteries a serious risk to aircraft. Established regulations already ban the carriage of spare batteries in checked luggage, and regulators around the world are working to bring this rule to the attention of passengers, who increasingly rely on PEDs in their daily life.

Balancing between the special needs of aviation, where any fire is a critical threat, and the technology industry’s continued use of volatile Lithium batteries in the manufacturing of its electronic devices is a challenge I covered in-depth for Aircraft Interiors International Magazine this June.

There are alternative formulations of Lithium batteries for electronic devices which do not pose the same flammability risk, but it’s up to the tech industry to recognise the threat to users of electronic devices (both in the air and on the ground) and to adopt these safer, even cheaper and more reliable battery options. Until such a time, users of electronic devices must be especially vigilant of damage which might occur to batteries in use or in transport, resulting in fire.

This video from the FAA of a laptop on fire at LAX, left unattended charging on the floor, (in the first minute of the video) really helps illustrate the severity of thermal runway fires.

Carriage of Lithium batteries in cargo has also proven deadly. The UAE’s General Civil Aviation Authority (GCAA) report on the crash of UPS Flight Six, a Boeing 747-44AF cargo aircraft, exposed the risks of carrying Lithium batteries in the cargo hold, and also exposed a practice of improper marking and declarations of this cargo by shippers.

As the Aviation Safety Network reported:

“There were no declared shipments of hazardous materials onboard the airplane. However, at least three of the shipments contained lithium ion battery packs that met the Class 9 hazardous material criteria, according to the report.”

“Less than three minutes after the first warning to the crew, the fire resulted in severe damage to flight control systems and caused the upper deck and cockpit to fill with continuous smoke.
The crew advised Bahrain East ACC that the cockpit was ‘full of smoke’ and that they ‘could not see the radios’, at around the same time the crew experienced pitch control anomalies during the turn back and descent to ten thousand feet.
The smoke did not abate during the emergency impairing the ability of the crew to safely operate the aircraft for the duration of the flight back to Dubai.”

Aviation must manage its exposure to the threat of Lithium batteries, but ultimately it will be up to manufacturers of batteries to properly declare their shipments, and for manufacturers of our electronic devices to adopt alternative batteries which pose no threat to transport or consumers.

Featured Image by Mpt Matthew on Wikimedia Commons is: “A photograph of an Apple iPhone 3GS‘s Lithium-ion polymer battery, which has expanded due to a short-circuit failure. The battery is shown in situ on top of the rear phone case; pictured behind is an intact iPhone 3GS for size comparison.”

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