Time for governments to tackle lithium battery issue, IATA says

Time for governments to tackle lithium battery issue, IATA says

IATA head of cargo Glyn Hughes.

TAIPEI — Airlines and rechargeable battery makers are preparing to launch a joint campaign aimed at lobbying governments to clamp down on the counterfeit battery business that is posing a growing threat to aviation safety.

The International Air Transport Association has teamed up with the Portable Rechargeable Battery Association (PRBA) in a bid to convince manufacturing countries that greater government oversight is needed in the production of lithium batteries.

Glyn Hughes, IATA’s head of cargo, said the campaign would target the counterfeit battery makers that currently operate with impunity and are hard to spot.

“China, for instance, needs to have greater oversight over the makers of fake batteries, with licences issued and those operating illegally being prosecuted,” he told JOC.com on the sidelines of the FIATA world congress in Taipei.

“That’s where the supply chain risk needs to be tackled, even before delivery to the forwarders.”

News of the campaign was well received by Markus Muecke, Panalpina global head of air freight management and procurement. “It is a problem that cannot be fixed by the forwarders. We are as careful as we can be but it is a government issue and that’s where it needs to be dealt with,” he said.

It is not only counterfeit batteries that are posing a risk to the supply chain. In a bid to sidestep regulations that limit the size of lithium batteries or stipulate certain packaging, the mis-declaration of shipments is being regularly exposed.

Hughes provided an example of an air waybill for a six ton, 300-box consignment of mobile phone accessories that actually stipulated it contained “no battery no magnet” and was about to fly off on Philippine Airlines. Fortunately while still on the ground, one of the boxes in the pallet began to smoke and it was discovered to contain thousands of lithium batteries not packed properly or labeled.

“This is not ignorance or a mistake. By saying no batteries were included it is a wilful intent to avoid complying with the shipping regulations,” he said.

Hughes gave an even more blatant example of a shipper sidestepping regulations, this time from an online retailer selling lithium ion batteries for model aircraft. Under the product description, the seller advised customers that a fake label stating that the battery was under 100W would be attached.

The shipper was quite upfront with the reasons for the mis-declaration. “Because the power of the battery is more than 100W it can’t be transported by air,” the seller stated, and even apologised for any inconvenience.

Hughes said this was alarming. “This guy knows the regulations. It is not naive ignorance and is not something we could fix by educating him on the rules. He knows that if he had to declare the battery properly he would not be able to ship it by air through the regular postal system.”

The seller went on to state that as the battery was heavy, he would declare a lighter weight to bring down the air freight costs.

“This is an increasingly worrying situation. IATA is reaching out to a lot of the e-commerce websites and letting them know that they need more vigilance, and we are working with the World Customs Organisation and the Universal Postal Union to remind people of the obligations of shipping goods safely.”

A broad framework for a performance-based standard for shipping lithium batteries by air was developed during a recent International Civil Aviation Organization meeting in Montreal. PRBA executive director George Kerchner said this would have a substantial impact on its members, the lithium battery industry in general and the thousands of shippers and carriers involved in the transport of lithium batteries by air.The air transport of lithium batteries has become a controversial issue with several airlines slapping their own embargoes on carrying bulk lithium batteries in both passenger plane bellies or in freighters.

Asked whether this would encourage more mis-declaration of batteries, Hughes said there was no evidence to support this. But he did concede that it affects the brand name battery makers that are forced to send their products by ocean, while the shippers mis-declaring their batteries will continue to do so.

The problem facing the air cargo industry is that in the last five years there has been a massive increase in the production of devices that are all powered by the rechargeable lithium ion batteries in the case of smartphones and tablets, and lithium metal batteries that drive devices like cameras and watches.

Andrew Herdman, director general of the Association of Asia Pacific Airlines, said poor quality batteries and undeclared or mis-declared goods continued to be a concern for the industry.

“It is imperative that airlines perform their functions rigorously and that regulators ensure that manufacturers and shippers follow the regulations. Any failure to follow the regulations needs to be severely punished,” he said.

With lithium batteries suspected in downing at least two freighters in recent years, the Federal Aviation Authority of the U.S. tested a pallet containing thousands of lithium batteries. It created what is known as a thermal runaway fire, and once that happened, there was little that could be done to stop it.

“That’s what spooked several carriers who decided not to carry bulk ship lithium batteries, ion or metal. The problem arises when someone manufactures lithium batteries, perfectly legitimately, then wants to ship thousands of them in pallets,” Herdman said.

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