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Malignant mail

As the US Postal Service bans international shipments containing lithium batteries, Ian Putzger examines the risks and discovers a multitude of problems in complying with ever-changing regulations

A brand new Boeing 747-8 freighter carries a price tag north of $300 million dollars, a 777F is over $270 million at list prices – eye-watering sums for CFOs in an industry beset by anaemic yields and paltry returns. An iPhone is one of the perfect commodities at the moment to fill these pricey beasts of burden – high in demand and in value, with speed to market a key criterion. Yet it can turn into a deadly enemy for these planes, potentially turning one of these costly assets into charred and twisted pieces of debris.


Like myriad other electronics today, iPhones are powered by lithium batteries. Unlike most other smart cellular phones, however, these communication devices cannot be readily separated from their power supply, which raises serious issues for transportation.


“When you return a cell phone, you are requested to make sure that the battery and battery cover are not included. With an iPhone, you can’t remove the battery. To start with, you need a special screwdriver, and you are dealing with miniscule screws. Next you have to carefully push out the touchscreen. When you have done that, you have to take a soldering iron and un-solder the pouch batteries,” explains Jens-Thomas Rueckert, manager for training and projects at compliance specialist Logar. He is a dangerous goods specialist who worked for Iata for years before joining Logar.


In terms of safety regulations pertaining to lithium batteries, this presents airlines with a dangerous conundrum. “Apple is non-compliant by design. The iPhone is by design, illegal to send by air,” Rueckert says.


The ramifications are worrying, as lithium batteries have been linked to a number of fatal aircraft incidents. A report by the US FAA counted 113 incidents of smoke, fire, extreme heat or explosion between 1991 and 2010 on passenger and cargo aircraft that involved batteries or battery-powered devices. Without new, tighter safety regulations, fires from lithium batteries will likely destroy one cargo jet registered in the US every two years, according to a study commissioned by US and Canadian aviation regulators.


Lithium batteries have been linked to the tragic demise of two 747-400 freighters in the past two years – the crash of UPS Flight 006 in the Middle East in 2010, and the disappearance of Asiana Flight 991 en route from Seoul to Shanghai the following year, after the crew reported a fire on board. In both tragedies, none of the crew survived.


In the year before the tragic fate of UPS Flight 006, both large US integrators suffered scares on aircraft that involved batteries. FedEx staff discovered a fire on a freighter, which had apparently started in a consignment of battery-powered devices. One month earlier, workers unloading a UPS freighter had found a lithium battery in a burned package.


For all the circumstantial evidence that points at lithium batteries as the likely cause of the crashes of both UPS Flight 006 and Asiana Flight 991, the investigations into the tragedies did not establish any conclusive evidence that the fires had been caused by lithium batteries. In both cases, “the exact cause of the accident has not been finally been determined. Accordingly, there have not been any immediate process changes on the side of Iata,” points out Petra Duencher, who is responsible for hazmat shipments in the global handling management of Lufthansa Cargo.


The US Department of Transportation (DoT) did see a strong need to act after the incidents of 2009 at FedEx and UPS. It proposed sweeping regulatory changes that would require lithium batteries to be stowed in locations that can be accessed by the flight crew, unless they are shipped in an FAA-approved container or a Class C cargo compartment. The scheme ran into a firestorm of criticism from a broad phalanx of opponents, from airlines and forwarders, electronics shippers and battery manufacturers, to the government of South Korea. Iata challenged the cost-benefit analysis of the DoT, arguing that the cost for the industry would be close to $1 billion, far above the DoT’s $200 million projection.


Following a mandate not to exceed Icao regulations, the DoT recently ended up with a decision to align its requirements with the provisions adopted by Icao, which are due to become effective on 1 January 2013. These include updates to package weight limits for lithium ion cells and batteries, lithium metal cells and batteries, additional label requirements, amendments the shippers must provide to the carrier, and other carrier documentation and inspection requirements.

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