Lithium battery cargo carried on missing Malaysia flight MH370

Lithium battery cargo carried on missing Malaysia flight MH370

HONG KONG — There were 221 kilograms of lithium ion batteries in the belly hold of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 that vanished in March last year, according to the first comprehensive report into the disappearance of the Kuala Lumpur-Beijing aircraft.

Information on the cargo payload was included in the 600-page report by an independent group  of investigators that was released at the weekend, although the report does not apportion blame or liability. The Malaysia Airlines Boeing 777-200ER disappeared on a flight from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing with 227 passengers and 12 crew on board on Mar. 8, 2014. No trace of the aircraft has been found and there are no indications of what happened.

The latest report comes as the International Coordination Council of Aerospace Industry Associations, which represents planemakers Boeing and Airbus, issued calls for a ban on bulk lithium battery shipments on passenger planes, calling the threat of fires "an unacceptable risk.”

The investigation into MH370 revealed that the lithium battery shipment on board was packed by Motorola Solutions in Malaysia’s northern Penang state, a Southeast Asian electronic manufacturing hub, and did not pass through security screening at Penang airport. Instead, the shipment was inspected physically by airline cargo personnel and cleared inspection by customs before it was sealed and left Penang a day before the flight.

At the Kuala Lumpur airport, the lithium battery cargo was loaded onto the plane without any additional security screening. The report said there were 99 shipments of lithium ion batteries on Malaysia Airlines flights to Beijing from January to May last year. However, the batteries were not regulated as dangerous goods.

Asked if this was unusual, Paul Tsui, chairman of the Hong Kong Association of Freight Forwarding and Logistics (Haffa), said if lithium ion batteries, either packed with equipment or contained in equipment, conformed to regulations, they were regarded as safe to ship via air freight on passenger aircraft.

He said shippers did not need to provide a Shipper’s Declaration for Dangerous Goods, but the wording “lithium ion batteries in compliance with Section II of packing Instruction 965” had to be included on the air waybill. The shipment would be checked for compliance before being loaded on the flight.

According to the International Air Transport Association (IATA), lithium metal batteries were prohibited from being carried on passenger aircraft only when shipped by themselves. The prohibition does not apply to lithium metal batteries packed with equipment or contained in equipment, such as in mobile phones.

The shipment of lithium ion batteries on MH370 is interesting considering the regulatory scrutiny applied to the cargo that was further tightened following two freighter crashes attributed to batteries catching fire. On July 29, 2011, an Asiana Airlines B747 freighter crashed off Korea, killing its two pilots, after lithium batteries ignited. Among the payload were electronic products, mobile phones, liquid crystal displays, LEDs, the batteries and liquids. On Sept. 6, 2010, crew on a UPS B747-400 freighter reported smoke in the cockpit shortly after takeoff from Dubai and crashed as the pilots attempted to return to the airport.

Tony Tyler, IATA’s director general and CEO, said the continued safe transportation of lithium batteries remained a key concern for the industry, especially in China where the bulk of the world’s lithium batteries are produced.

“Robust regulations and guidance exist, but these are not being fully adhered to by all shippers,” he told the IATA World Cargo Symposium in Shanghai.

IATA has developed “Lithium Battery Shipping Guidelines” in Chinese to raise awareness on this vital issue, but Tyler said it was one for government authorities to address.  

“Regulators need to step up. The industry is doing what it can, but without oversight, surveillance and where necessary, enforcement, compliance at the source of the shipment will be limited,” Tyler said. 

During demonstrations at a dangerous goods panel (DGP) working group on lithium batteries held in April 2014, IATA reached some disturbing conclusions on how fire created different reactions depending on the battery type, manufacturer, and chemistry.

“The meeting concluded that fires in flight involving certain types and quantities of lithium metal batteries have the potential to result in an uncontrolled fire leading to a catastrophic failure of the airframe,” the meeting found.

The International Coordination Council of Aerospace Industry Associations paper supports the IATA findings. Recent testing by the Federal Aviation Administration showed the batteries emitted explosive gases when overheated. Shipments commonly contained tens of thousands of batteries packed tightly in air cargo containers.

In the test fires, a buildup of gases inside the containers led to explosions and violent fires that aircraft fire protection systems were unable "to suppress or extinguish a fire involving significant quantities of lithium batteries, resulting in reduced time available for safe flight and landing of an aircraft to a diversion airport," according to the paper.

"Therefore, continuing to allow the carriage of lithium batteries within today's transport category aircraft cargo compartments is an unacceptable risk to the air transport industry," the paper concluded.

Contact Greg Knowler at gknowler@joc.com and follow him on Twitter: @greg_knowler.