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IATA Calls on Governments to Tackle Lithium Battery Risks

The International Air Transport Association (IATA) has joined leaders of the lithium battery supply chain in demanding stricter enforcement of international regulations for the transport of lithium batteries.

This follows a ban on the carriage of lithium batteries by air which ICAO imposed this 10 February.

On the day before the ICAO ban this year, the FAA issued a critical SAFO 10017 (safety advisory) calling for closer investigation of the scope of the risks, which was immediately followed by the NTSB publication of findings on the crash of Asiana Airlines 991, which made a direct tie-in to lithium batteries as the cause of the fire onboard.

Lithium batteries pose a serious risk to aircraft because they can ignite and generate runaway fires of great intensity which are difficult to detect and put out.

A Strongly Worded Letter

IATA had been working with representatives of the battery industry to find ways to stem rogue shipments of dangerous lithium batteries without cutting off shipment by air of these goods entirely.

Now, the association has issued a letter to authorities in countries where lithium batteries are manufactured and exported to take action which protects against “rogue” shippers sneaking shipments on aircraft unmarked as dangerous goods.

“In a joint letter to Ministers of Trade, Industry and Transport, and Directors of Civil Aviation in the world’s largest lithium battery manufacturing and export countries, IATA, PRBA, the US Rechargeable Battery Association, RECHARGE, the European Advanced Rechargeable and Lithium Battery Association, the Global Shippers Forum (GSF) and the International Air Cargo Association (TIACA) have called for lithium battery safety regulations to be enforced at the point of origin including the initial shipper and the battery manufacturer,” IATA states.

“The letter also called for implementation of cooperative enforcement initiatives between jurisdictions to address situations, where lithium batteries manufactured in one state are driven over a border to be flown from another state. The global associations also called for significant fines and custodial sentences to be imposed on those who circumvent the regulations.”

The Actions of a Minority

Tony Tyler IATA’s Director General and CEO expressed the sense of urgency in adequate vigilance and enforcement.

“Safety is aviation’s top priority. Airlines, shippers and manufacturers have worked hard to establish rules that ensure lithium batteries can be carried safely. But the rules are only effective if they are enforced and backed-up by significant penalties. Government authorities must step up and take responsibility for regulating rogue producers and exporters. And flagrant abuses of dangerous goods shipping regulations, which place aircraft and passenger safety at risk, must be criminalized,” said Tony Tyler IATA’s Director General and CEO.

“The actions of a minority threaten to undermine confidence in legitimate battery and product manufacturers. This a matter of deep concern for our members,” said George A. Kirchner, Executive Director of PRBA which represents most of the world’s largest manufacturers of lithium ion and lithium metal batteries, and manufacturers of products powered by these batteries.

IATA and the PRBA have repeatedly warned governments of the danger posed by “the wilful disregard of the international regulations by rogue manufacturers and shippers and to close existing legal loopholes that prevent prosecutions of serial offenders.”

This lack of enforcement puts pressure on airlines and regulators to push the unilaterally ban all forms of lithium battery shipments from aircraft, but banning legitimate battery shipments will unfortunately not address the problem of “rogue” shippers sneaking shipments onboard aircraft because these batteries are in high demand.

IATA warns that a unilateral ban, “would add to the cost of global supply chains and consumer goods, and encourage those who flout the law to increase mislabelling of batteries, further increasing safety and security risks.”

“A ban on the shipment of lithium ion batteries aboard aircraft would put lives at risk by slowing delivery of life-critical and life–enhancing medical equipment and jeopardise the security of many countries because a large number of military applications are powered by lithium batteries,” George A. Kerchner added.

A very large amount of our everyday gadgets are also powered by these batteries, and while not specifically named in this call to action may certainly be acting behind the scenes.

However, adopting alternatives which are safe to use seems to be too big a task for technology leaders to take on at this time.

The technology exists, but it lacks adequate funding and support to develop ready-for-market versions. In the meantime, it’s much easier to continue funding the lithium battery trade which to make matters worse also uses child slave labour to supply its necessary components, according to Amnesty International.

You Bet I’m Charged UP!

Frankly, the cynical back and forth on this dangerous situation has me frothing once again. I understand and accept IATA’s point of view that an outright ban on carriage of lithium batteries is inviting illegitimate suppliers of these goods to get dangerously creative.

At the same time, I can’t help feeling that too close a collaboration with the industry which benefits financially from a liberal regulatory landscape on shipments of these same products is ill-advised.

What is more, I feel that there is a conflict of interest for airlines here which they themselves are unsure of how best to address.

On the one hand, some IATA members may be eager to ship legitimate lithium battery shipments because the freight income is valuable. Their partners may not and might be weary of shipments being disguised and snuck onboard their aircraft despite self-imposed bans by some carriers.

The fact is that this is a very dangerous good. Not just in the air, but on the ground.

At the end of the day, aviation is put in an impossible position as part of the global supply chain while there is no pressure on the technology industry to change power sources.

The battery industry, with which IATA is collaborating on these calls to action, would not benefit from such a change to alternative power sources.

It’s a sickening state of affairs. You can read more about it by following the lithium battery series of articles on Flight Chic.

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