Lithium shipments- can the industry get its act together?
Lithium shipments- can the industry get its act together?
Lithium batteries have been known to cause spontaneous ignition and uncontrollable fire on aircraft. How can the industry fight misdeclaration, wrong packaging, improper handling, absence of...

Lithium shipments- can the industry get its act together?

The aviation industry has in recent years been witness to a surge of incidents owing to mis-declared or ill-packaged shipments carrying lithium batteries(LB) that threaten the very safety standards that the industry swears by.

Lithium batteries which come under the category of Dangerous Goods (DG) have been known to cause spontaneous ignition and uncontrollable fire on aircrafts. Further, misdeclaration, wrong packaging, improper handling, absence of labelling may even cause aviation accidents.

Despite stringent rules on the packaging, handling, and declaration of lithium batteries, badly packaged batteries, and mis-declared or counterfeit shipments have led to fires and air carriers being unable to check for dangerous goods.

The aviation industry and its stakeholders have time and again received flak for negligence and being soft on offenders after several incidents in the last decade showcased the lack of stringent regulations or the passing of culpability. More recently the trade association of the world's airlines- IATA (The International Air Transport Association) updated rules on carrying lithium batteries on 2 January this year. So what has led to the world taking notice of lithium battery shipments?

As per the details on recent events involving smoke, fire, extreme heat, or explosion involving lithium batteries shared by the US FAA(Federal Aviation Administration), as of December 22, 2021, there have been around 350 air/airport incidents involving lithium batteries carried as cargo or baggage recorded since January 23-2006. The FAA has in the past said that lithium batteries could spark a fire under certain conditions which may be beyond the aircraft's fire suppression system and lead to a catastrophic failure.

More recently an Aiastar-TU Tupolev Tu-204C caught fire at the Hangzhou-Xiaoshan Airport this January. The aircraft was supposed to fly with 20 tonnes of general cargo for Alibaba's logistics arm Cainiao. While its eight crew members escaped, the aircraft was destroyed. Speculation is rife about the cause of fire but e-commerce flights are vulnerable to the danger of lithium batteries especially as Hangzhou is known for its electronics manufacturing might.

In 2016, global e-commerce giant Amazon was slapped with a fine of £65000 by the UK's Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) for attempting to fly lithium-ion batteries and flammable aerosols on a passenger aeroplane in 2014 and 2015.

In one of the most tragic incidents, a UPS cargo plane crashed in Dubai, UAE in 2010 and had no survivors because of a fire in the cargo hold whose cause was reportedly believed to have been caused by a shipment of lithium-ion batteries in the cargo hold.

Despite the risk associated with carrying lithium shipments without due diligence, there is growing global demand for lithium batteries. As per a July 2021 report by Research and Markets, the global lithium-ion battery market size is projected to grow from USD 41.1 billion in 2021 to USD 116.6 billion by 2030. Further, it is expected to grow at a CAGR of 12.3% from 2021 to 2030.

The Coronavirus pandemic has further fuelled the need for continuous power supply, automation, plug-in electric vehicles, and smart devices, and the use of lithium-ion batteries in the renewable sector is said to be driving this growth.

Lithium prices have hit record highs due to high demand and according to a forecast by S&P Global Market Intelligence, this trend is likely to continue well in 2022. The forecast further cites that lithium chemical supply is forecasted to touch 636,000 mt lithium carbonate equivalent in 2022, up from 408,000 mt in 2020 and an estimated 497,000 mt in 2021.

Giving a peek into the volumes of dangerous cargo and the share of Lithium batteries handled by international cargo carriers, Guillaume Halleux from Qatar Airways Cargo told The STAT Trade Times, "Dangerous goods flown on our flights account for 10% of our total volumes with 63% of that being lithium batteries. Over the last 3 years, lithium battery growth on our flights has risen by close to 12% year on year as an average."

Guillaume Halleux is the Chief Officer Cargo of Qatar Airways

Another key air cargo player AFKLMP is reported to have carried prior to the COVID crisis, well over 80,000 DG shipments/year of which over 35% contained LB.

Meanwhile, as per figures shared with the publication, in 2021 Moscow-based Volga-Dnepr Group transported over 100 thd (thousand) tonnes of dangerous goods cargo, which is around 15% of the total cargo carried. The company, which is a leading player in the movement of oversize, unique, and heavy air cargo, cited that the CAO (cargo aircraft only) lithium batteries accounted for over 9 thousand tonnes, which is 1.3% in their volumes.

For the past years, aviation authorities have been developing numerous regulations to ensure the safe and secure transportation of lithium batteries.

IATA the apex trade association of the global airline industry has published its rules in the Dangerous Goods Regulations (DGR) which are drawn from the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) technical instructions that are developed in specialized expert groups by states following input and dialogue with the industry and other experts which have spent considerable energy in testing products and packaging and looking at processes and applicable training regimes. Once made, these rules are constantly reviewed and upgraded when necessary and training regulations are provided.

Speaking about the overarching updates made by IATA to the transportation of Lithium batteries and Lithium-ion batteries on aircrafts recently, David Brennan, Assistant Director Cargo Safety & Standards, IATA told the publication, "Effective 1 January 2022 the allowance for small packages of lithium cells or batteries that while restricted to a cargo aircraft were not subject to the normal controls for dangerous goods was removed from the IATA DGR. This exception was removed as the allowance for these packages to move through air transport without controls was seen as being inconsistent with the requirement that airlines must, through a safety risk assessment, have established appropriate controls to manage the risks associated with the loading and quantity of dangerous goods in aircraft cargo compartments. There continues to be work on developing a packaging standard that can be used to verify that the package is capable of containing a fire event, although this work is taking some time to complete."

David Brennan is Assistant Director Cargo Safety & Standards, IATA

In 2018, IATA also developed a digital tool called Dangerous Goods AutoCheck (DG AutoCheck) to facilitate the acceptance of DG shipments. It in fact lets airlines, ground handlers, and freight forwarders automatically check the compliance of the shipper's Declaration for Dangerous Goods (DGD) against the relevant provisions of the IATA DGR Regulations.

Air France KLM Cargo (AFKL Cargo), IAG Cargo, the cargo division of IAG (International Airlines Group), MASkargo, ground handler dnata, cargo handler BCUBE Air Cargo, ground handler Havaş, Shanghai Pudong International Airport Cargo Terminal Co Ltd (PACTL) are some of the stakeholders who have adopted IATA's DG AutoCheck for the acceptance of dangerous goods shipments.

Last year IATA launched a new industry certification program called the Center of Excellence for Independent Validators Lithium Battery to improve the safe handling and transportation of lithium batteries across the supply chain. More recently, leading logistics player CEVA Logistics became the first to receive IATA CEIV Lithium Battery certification. With this, CEVA's Amsterdam and Hong Kong air freight stations are now CEIV certified in the handling of lithium batteries.

The CEIV certification programme was designed to enable shippers and freight forwarders of lithium battery products to meet their safety obligation by complying with the applicable transport regulations. It supports companies to develop capacity and resources in handling and transporting lithium battery shipments in a safe and compliant manner.

Brennan added that the certification has several multi-pronged outcomes including ensuring IATA DGR and LBSG (Lithium Battery Shipping Regulations) and other pertinent national and international regulations and standards, in reducing risks associated with transporting and handling of lithium battery shipments, in increasing confidence in industry stakeholders' operations and give visibility on best players when it comes to the transportation of lithium batteries.

Despite many overtures towards adoption of more stringent regulations for lithium shipments, Glyn Hughes, Director General of TIACA that represents the many varied stakeholders of the air cargo industry cautions, "The need for operators to have robust safety management systems in place is also important but we must be cautious to think that operators can have transparency of upstream processes. Each entity can only really be responsible for what it can control."

Glyn Hughes is the Director General of TIACA

Many stakeholders have taken to having a series of checks to enable visibility of the LB shipments and integrating them into the cargo acceptance process.

Identifying some good practices undertaken at AFKLMP Cargo, a key air cargo player, Edwin Boon, Cargo Operational Safety Manager & Dangerous Goods Policies said, "For LB under UN 3480 and 3090 (shipments containing just LB batteries), only our full freighter operation at both Martinair and AF can accept these. Fully regulated shipments, needing a shipper declaration for dangerous goods, already allow some degree of 'visibility' of these shipments. Up and above all of this, we are currently profiling all FWB (Freight Waybill) and FHL messaging to any indication that the shipment might contain LB without the proper booking/AWB requirements such as documentation (DGD), statements, and/or relevant special handling codes. Instances of poor and/or unsafe packaging as well as mis-declared/undeclared shipments are always intercepted at the cargo acceptance point, but also in the hubs (AMS/CDG) during transit."

From a European perspective, the Brussels Airport handles significant volumes of DG shipments. Geert Aerts, the Director of Cargo & Logistics at Brussels Airport said, "The ground handlers are supervised, audited and monitored by the Belgian Civil Aviation Authority (DGLV), which ensures that ICAO regulations are strictly followed by both handlers and airlines as far as DGR is concerned. At the Brussels Airport, there is a lot of attention for training and safety awareness. Every handler must have a minimum number of IATA certified staff members who have a DGR certificate and who follow a refresher course and take an exam at least every two years, at a training institute recognised by IATA."

Geert Aerts, the Director of Cargo & Logistics at Brussels Airport

Dmitriy Kulish, Director for High Tech and Automotive, Volga-Dnepr Group said, "We offer as much help prior to shipment as we can – advisory support, assistance with documents, provision of the current regulations and requirements. By doing this, we expect no cases of poor or unsafe packaging. The Covid-19 affected a lot of industries to a certain extent, although what we managed to achieve in logistics is more collaboration which eliminates the mistakes upon transportation and creates a more transparent environment. Furthermore, we keep on paying particular attention to additional safety control measures upon lithium batteries' transportation, carry out risk assessment analysis on a yearly basis and make a list of preventative actions to minimise the risks."

Aerts added, "Every DGR shipment undergoes a documentary and a physical check, these are supported by a digital DG dashboard to enable smooth and standardized checks. The slightest anomaly will result in the refusal of the shipment. Once accepted, DGR goods are stored in accordance with the Belgian legislation (included in the environmental permit). Further handling strictly follows IATA rules for handling and marking of DGR. Means of transport with DGR are marked so that they are clearly identifiable in case of emergency."

Going one step forward, AFKLMP is now looking to use automation and/or IT solutions to block any shipment that they profile in their system for any further activities by the GHA (Ground Handling Agencies), including unable to manifest the concerning shipment on a flight or (administratively) add the shipment to a ULD.

Boon added, "This step is still in Beta testing, but it will be of great help as we will be able to change our interception process from a live communication with the concerning GHA (phone, mail, telex) to an IT-based intervention. The GHA simply cannot move a blocked shipment within their own cargo handling system (IT platform). For DG specifically, it will make our use of the IATA DG Autocheck platform easier in a way that we can send eDGD (Dangerous Goods Declaration) data through the program to validate at least the shipment data is what it's supposed to be. This can be done already at the booking stage as soon as we can share the DGD data in a phase where the shipment is still at the customer's warehouse."

Edwin Boon is the Cargo Operational Safety Manager & Dangerous Goods Policies at AFKLMP Cargo

Meanwhile, Halleux from Qatar Airways Cargo says, "When we identify non-compliances, we work backwards to try to identify the root causes of the failures. We start with trying to understand what the GHA missed if anything. We also need forwarders and shippers to know where the gaps are and do their part to correct them. With significant cases (i.e. undeclared, grossly mis-declared), we share the details with IATA via the Dangerous Goods Occurrence Reporting Alert System for further sharing with the industry. We have also invested in 13,000 fire-resistant containers and are currently replacing our entire AKE fleet with Safran QKE units."

While many players like AFKLMP, Qatar Airways Cargo admitted to having ended a business relationship with shippers or forwarders who did not follow regulations in the past despite several consultations, Halleux says that it's time to take the issue beyond the industry.

Halleux says, "The first thing we need is regulators to look beyond carriers in their regulations, oversight, and enforcement. We need an even playing field for carriers dictated by regulators, starting with ICAO. Sure, we've caught undeclared lithium battery shipments via x-ray screening, but until it's mandated for all carriers, we have a gap. Until all carriers are subject to the same strict requirements, bad actors will only move their shipments to less strict carriers, and the public and industry are no safer. We need regulators to step up and realize that the current regulation has become insufficient in front of a lithium risk that has grown tremendously over the past years. It is also not enough anymore to regulate only the carriers."

Giving his take, Boon added, "It has been proved that it's possible to distinguish batteries 'contained in/packed with' shipments from shipments containing just batteries, specifically when performing screening on 'piece level'. Also, shipments that are said not to contain LB but actually they do, can be well distinguished by image. We see now the '5th protocol' security scanners come into service that contain a range of possibilities for recognizing specific types of DG. In our opinion, the way forward is a joint approach between the dangerous goods community and the security community in order to ensure that shipment details that point to any inconsistency with documentation or data are being captured for close survey or investigation."

Speaking about how government authorities can step up and proactively block rogue producers and manufacturers or exporters and those who abuse the regulations and place aircraft and passengers' safety at risk, Brennan further added, "This is an area that IATA continues to have concerns about. We believe that Civil Aviation Authorities (CAA) should be much more active in undertaking oversight and surveillance of shippers of dangerous goods, with a focus on shippers of lithium batteries, as well as freight forwarders. In addition, the CAAs should take appropriate action, including prosecution where appropriate, against shippers where an airline has identified and reported instances where lithium batteries were found to be offered when not in compliance with the DGR."

Since safety is a critical aspect of the entire supply chain, TIACA (The International Air Cargo Association) has recently partnered with ICAO to jointly develop a course with appointed professional training and consulting partner SASI (Strategic Aviation Solutions International) to author and deliver.

"The course which educates on applicable rules and regulations whilst explaining the importance of relevant and complaint application in the operational context will help address the need for enhanced awareness by regulators of operational issues and of the need for increased awareness of regulations by practitioners," Glyn Hughes said.

Citing awareness, compliance, and responsibility as the touchstones for the industry when it comes to LB shipments, Kulish adds, "Stakeholders should understand that flight safety is a number one priority because in case of any accident the damage could be really harmful to all the participants of the supply chain. The air cargo industry should also encourage more awareness, create more visibility, improve the level of competency and quality management."

Dmitriy Kulish is the Director for Hi- Tech and Automotive, Volga-Dnepr Group

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