Alarmed by rogue shippers flouting regulations for safe transport of lithium batteries on cargo aircraft, the world’s leading airline trade group has renewed calls for governments to crack down on violators, and developed a centralized system to report and quantify those incidents.
Concern centers around counterfeit, undeclared and misdeclared lithium batteries from shippers who cut costs by violating international regulations and standards for safe transport. Unsafe situations also arise when uneducated parties unwittingly ship batteries and other dangerous goods without proper packaging and disclosure.
The International Air Transport Association (IATA) and a coalition of import/export organizations and global associations representing logistics and other air cargo interests last month issued a declaration urging regulators to deal more forcefully with noncompliant shipments of lithium batteries.
“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 stopping rogue producers and exporters. Abuses of dangerous goods shipping regulations, which place aircraft and passenger safety at risk, must be criminalized,” said Glyn Hughes, IATA’s global head of cargo, in a statement.
Deliberately misleading shipments are most common in Asia, primarily among exports from China and Hong Kong, Nick Careen, IATA’s senior vice president for airport, passenger, cargo and security, told FreightWaves.
In December, Department of Homeland Security investigators arrested a Chinese national in Los Angeles on charges of participating in a $23.8 million scheme to manufacture and ship counterfeit laptop computer batteries and other electronics from China to the U.S., where unsuspecting customers bought the fake batteries on eBay and Amazon.com.
Lithium ion batteries, in particular, have become central to modern life, powering consumer and industrial goods such as mobile phones, laptops, toys, e-bikes, medical devices, e-cigarettes and even automobiles. They are light, have good power density and hold a charge better than earlier battery technologies.
Consumer demand for lithium batteries is growing at a compound annual rate of 17%, according to consulting firm TechSci Research. Incidents involving misdeclared or undeclared lithium batteries are rising along with that growth, experts say.
Under the right circumstances — usually a heat buildup due to poor ventilation and separation of electrodes — electrolytes in the batteries can ignite. Videos of the Samsung Note 7 phone and hoverboards bursting into flames, for example, went viral on social media in recent years. The batteries are often stacked together in larger power packs, such as in a Tesla car battery, or shipped in bulk. A fire in one cell will spread to other cells and then to surrounding batteries.
Undeclared shipments threaten catastrophic harm to aircraft if a fire occurs during flight, airlines warn. Passenger crews are trained to deal with personal devices that ignite in the main cabin, but a fire below deck can spread with little warning. When shipments are properly declared, transportation and logistics companies know what handling and storage precautions to take and how to react to an incident during ground operations.
In 2016, the International Civil Aviation Organization, part of the U.N., adopted a rule requiring governments to ban lithium batteries as cargo on passenger aircraft. The international body also limited the state of charge to 30% for batteries carried on cargo aircraft.
IATA provides guidance that provides comprehensive guidance for shipping batteries, which must pass U.N. testing requirements in order to be transported. Individual transport providers can also have their own restrictions.
In August 2016, IATA and other groups sent a letter to civil aviation and transportation ministers in many countries asking for stricter enforcement of safety regulations at the point of origin, including the initial shipper and battery manufacturer. The International Air Cargo Association (TIACA) and Global Shippers Forum, both of which participated in the recent declaration, also signed the letter, along with rechargeable battery associations in the U.S. and Europe.
More than three years later, there is still little accountability for flagrant abusers of dangerous-goods shipping regulations, airfreight industry representatives say.
IATA is now trying to spur action by giving authorities a tool to help them target misdeclared consignments of lithium batteries. An information-sharing platform rolled out last fall allows member airlines to quickly report tendered shipments that contain undeclared or concealed dangerous goods, particularly lithium batteries. The database will enable IATA to direct cases to government authorities, while also alerting member airlines to be vigilant for specific shippers that cut corners.
“You have a much better voice with the government when you can illustrate the risks that truly exist rather than just hypothetically talking about it potentially happening,” Careen said in the interview.
Several airlines are participating, and “ultimately we hope we’ll have everybody sending in their information when, and if, it happens,” he added.
The dangerous-goods alert system enables fast dissemination of incident reports without requiring verification. To minimize the risk of false positives, or reports that cannot later be substantiated, the system will promptly disseminate follow-up information, including reports of corrective action or further identification of the cargo source, according to information provided by IATA.
IATA has not had any high-profile incidents since launching the database, although some near-misses have been reported. “But that’s just a matter of time,” Careen warned.
He stressed that the warning system raises awareness for all parties that handle airfreight and is not just aimed at galvanizing law enforcement agencies. A shipper, for example, could get caught for a violation and receive a fine, but not face criminal charges. Airlines, ground handlers and expedited trucking companies benefit from knowing about the incident and the noncompliant customer.
“And we need to be able to understand the size of the problem globally and use that information to help our efforts in terms of advocacy,” Careen said.
IATA is working with e-commerce platforms such as Amazon, Alibaba and eBay, as well as postal authorities, to make sure they know how to catch shipments with improper labeling or packaging.
The trade association will hold its annual lithium battery workshop in Manchester, England., Oct. 6-7. The events typically include delegates from the lithium battery industry, equipment manufacturers, regulators, airlines, ground handling agents and freight forwarders. The group also conducts webinars to educate the air cargo supply chain about best practices and standards for transporting batteries.
“The most important [goal] is to get this on the mind of those who accept the batteries. If we manage to educate them, establish some sort of audit, then it’s more likely that we will significantly reduce mislabeling or non-compliant shipments,” TIACA Secretary General Vladimir Zubkov said.