Lithium batteries are suspected to have played a role in three commercial freighter aircraft fires between 2006 and 2011, and the ongoing concern about transporting the batteries by air has led IATA to issue a 56-page guide to mitigating the risks.
IATA’s “Lithium Battery Risk Mitigation Guidance for Operators” is available for free online and the organization hopes it will enable parties involved in shipping lithium batteries to have full access to best practices and guidelines. It also is aimed at helping airlines in educating passengers packing lithium batteries in baggage carried in aircraft bellies.
“Lithium batteries are safe to transport provided that they are designed, tested, manufactured and packaged in accordance with the global transport safety standards,” IATA SVP-safety and flight operations Kevin Hiatt said in announcing the guide’s release. “Developed with the input of leading industry groups specialized in the area of handling potentially dangerous goods, the [guide] represents an invaluable source of reference.”
The guide notes that “upwards of one billion lithium batteries are transported by air as mail, cargo or in passenger/crew baggage” annually, which “constitutes a safety hazard that must be managed in a clear and comprehensive manner.”
The guide points to three well-known cargo aircraft fires: 1) The February 2006 incident in which a United Parcel Service (UPS) DC-8 freighter landed at Philadelphia International Airport on fire. During the descent, a fire broke out that substantially damaged the aircraft; the two pilots survived but were treated for smoke inhalation. 2) The UPS 747-400F that crashed 50 minutes after takeoff from Dubai International Airport in September 2010 after attempting to return to the airport following its pilots reporting “smoke in the cockpit” owing to a main deck fire. Both pilots were killed. 3) The Asiana Airlines 747-400F that crashed off the coast of South Korea in the East China Sea after the pilots reported an inflight fire, killing both pilots and destroying the aircraft.
“It is known that all three aircraft were carrying lithium batteries as cargo, some of which on the UPS Boeing 747 were subsequently determined to have not complied with the regulatory requirements,” IATA states in the guide. “However, the degree to which the lithium batteries were involved in these incidents (i.e., whether they were the cause or aggravated the fire) could not be determined.”
IATA notes that lithium batteries are classified as “dangerous goods” by the United Nations, subjecting the manufacturing and transport of the potentially flammable batteries to a host of requirements. “There remain, however, a number of systemic problems with lithium batteries,” the IATA guide says. “Their ubiquitous nature means that people who are completely unaware of the dangerous goods regulations and the requirements for lithium batteries are shipping them as cargo and in mail. Worse still, unscrupulous individuals are prepared to flout the requirements and put passengers and crew at risk. Many passengers are similarly oblivious to the potential hazards of lithium batteries.
The result is that there are safety risks from lithium batteries in baggage, cargo and mail. This guide has been produced to assist operators in determining their strategies for mitigating these risks.”
UPS has been working on freighter aircraft fire mitigation technologies and procedures since the Dubai crash. In 2010, FAA issued a safety alert on lithium batteries carried as air cargo.
IATA has developed comprehensive guidance information for shippers, freight forwarders, ground handlers, airlines and passengers which may be found on the following web page: