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Cargo

Dangerous liaisons

Many small shippers are unaware of the rules which apply to the shipment of dangerous goods; even major multinationals often fail to comply. But with more regulation on its way, it’s time all forwarders and shippers became compliant, finds Martin Roebuck
 

Passenger aircraft will be barred from carrying lithium metal batteries, possibly as soon as 1 January 2015, if a decision by ICAO’s Dangerous Goods Panel (DGP) is ratified in June.

 

The panel was “not unanimous” at its recent discussions in Montreal, Canada, partly on account of the complexity of the supply chain, according to Dave Brennan, assistant director, cargo safety and standards at IATA. “In the US, if FedEx or UPS don’t fly something, it can go by truck, but in other parts of the world it’s not so easy – the integrators may sub-contract to another carrier, perhaps a passenger airline,” he says. The batteries causing concern are not the lithium-ion ones that power laptops and electrical tools, but lithium metal – the non-rechargeable, long shelf life type that go in the likes of remote locking systems for cars and implantable medical devices. It is likely that batteries packed with, or contained within equipment, or those carried by passengers could still be allowed.

 

The DGP decision has first to be ratified, possibly with amendments, by ICAO’s Air Navigation Commission (ANC) ready for rubber-stamping by the organisation’s council in June. “The language is not finalised yet,” Brennan said in mid-April. “It may be that small quantities of batteries can be exempted if the civil aviation authorities in the state of origin and the operator’s home state approve it. But that would probably only be for button cells, perhaps as few as 10.”

 

The ANC must also confirm the start date for a ban. “In theory, a ban could be effective before the end of this year, but that would be very challenging for everybody concerned,” Brennan says. For example, medical shippers have contracts or agreed systems in place allowing them to ship out new defibrillator batteries overnight, a ban would mean having to make alternative arrangements.

 

Not a new issue

It is often forgotten during this controversial debate that the US Department of Transportation banned lithium batteries from passenger aircraft 10 years ago, following an incident at Los Angeles airport.

 

“A container full of batteries was shoved around by a forklift truck. It was grossly mishandled,” Brennan says. “When it fell, the operator tried to right it using the forks but a lot of the batteries fell out and some got crushed under his wheels. A vigorous fire resulted. When lithium metal batteries catch fire, the resulting blaze is very energetic.”

 

In February of this year, two months ahead of the DGP’s pivotal Montreal meeting, safety experts were shown the results of fire tests carried out in a former FedEx freighter, now stationed at an FAA facility in Atlantic City, NJ.

 

“Heating elements were applied to batteries in an empty cargo hold to send them into ‘thermal runaway’ and the halon fire suppressant was ineffective. A water stream had to be used to put the fire out,” Brennan says.

 

But the test led to “vigorous discussion” as it was not a naturally occurring situation, he comments. “You can set up a test to demonstrate an outcome you want to see. Batteries don’t just spontaneously combust.”

 

Dennis Kampman, freighter handling manager for Air France-KLM, is also critical. “The batteries they tested were not packed according to ICAO technical instructions,” he confirms. “If batteries are properly manufactured and tested thermal runaway is very unlikely to happen, unless other cargo catches fire first.” >>


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