Phone recall rattles air cargo confidence in lithium battery rules

Phone recall rattles air cargo confidence in lithium battery rules

Image from a lithium ion battery fire test by Australia's Federal Aviation Authority.

Samsung’s global recall of its Note 7 mobile phone after reports of batteries overheating or exploding has shaken industry confidence in the regulatory system trying to ensure the safe transportation of lithium ion batteries.

The recall was labelled a “game changer” in the air cargo industry during a panel covering the transport of dangerous goods at Payload Asia’s conference in Hong Kong.

“This is not some back street manufacturer, it is a top of the line manufacturer and for some reason — design, manufacturing, quality — they made a mistake, and the result was they were shipping out little hand grenades,” said Bob Rogers, a senior advisor at Nordisk Aviation.

The giant South Korean shipper issued a worldwide recall of every Note 7 model phone sold before Sept. 15 after faulty components used in the battery manufacture triggered excessive heat during charging. Several airlines subsequently banned the carriage of the phones on their aircraft, or prohibit charging on board.

Global shipments of lithium ion batteries are expected to have a compound annual growth rate of 20 percent for at least the next 10 years as they are the power source for countless electronic devices. The lithium ion battery market will reach $22.5 billion this year.

It is believed that 30 percent of the batteries are shipped via air, but new International Civil Aviation Organization, or ICAO, standards that took effect April 1 include a temporary ban of bulk lithium ion batteries shipped as cargo on passenger aircraft, and a requirement that any cargo shipments of these batteries be at a state-of-charge no greater than 30 percent.

The ban applying to passenger planes will be lifted when the industry develops packaging that can contain a fire, which is expected to be available by 2018.

Delegates at the conference were shown video tests of lithium ion batteries subjected to overheating that caused what is known as a thermal runaway fire, and the results were chilling. Even a single battery can explode and create serious damage, and bulk shipments can be counted in the tens of thousands.

Stan Wraight, executive director of Strategic Aviation Solutions and former CEO of AirBridgeCargo, questioned why lithium ion batteries were even allowed on airplanes and said the videos revealed the cargo to be “as explosive as a terrorist bomb."

“Why are we debating the risk of these things if even Samsung can’t control the quality? If anyone can control that it should be Samsung and Apple and LG, not us, not ICAO, not the International Air Transport Association. If those companies don’t know enough about this, why are we even letting batteries on airplanes in the first place?

Glyn Hughes, global head of cargo for IATA, said the association had discussions with Samsung over the issue and was told there was a small number of batteries from one supplier that created the short circuit that caused overheating.

He added that there has been a lot of debate around whether or not to allow lithium batteries to be transported by air.

“Some people have submitted that dangerous goods in general should not be transported on aircraft, but we believe there should be regulations in place to protect crew, passengers, aircraft, and people on the ground. Mitigating the risks with regulations is the way to go,” he said.

“The regulations in place are adequate, but the reality is that you have the misdeclared goods and regulations don’t address that.”

Tod Mawhinney, director and head of cargo Asia at Swiss WorldCargo, said as a passenger airline, the carrier put a lot of effort into dangerous goods training and auditing facilities, but the real issue was misdeclared cargo. He asked what could be done to punish those responsible.

Hughes said the shippers that were not declaring the dangerous goods were trying to avoid costs and training of DG-efficient teams and processes, and they were hiding the lithium ion batteries in consolidations.

“Forwarders that are getting co-loaded and co-loaded, by the time they receive the cargo the goods are hidden so deep inside that they would have to break down an entire consignment to find everything,” he said.

“Right now the consequences are zero. If a shipment on the ground starts smoking, they notify the authorities but nothing is done. And often they would not even be able to find who was directly responsible. If it has been surface transported from China, and then try to find who manufactured it, forget it.”

IATA and the International Air Cargo Association were joined by battery manufacturers in issuing a joint statement in mid-August calling for tougher action by governments and outlining their frustration with the lack of control in some countries as demand for lithium ion batteries continued to grow rapidly.

Hughes said the campaign was initiated by asking governments in countries where the sub-standard lithium ion batteries are being manufactured to take responsibility, increase oversight and criminalize the activity.

The campaign is already having an effect, with online retailer Amazon slapped with an $84,295 fine in the UK this month for trying to ship lithium ion batteries and flammable aerosols by air.

Contact Greg Knowler at greg.knowler@ihsmarkit.com and follow him on Twitter: @greg_knowler.