Skies Challenged with e-commerce lithium batteries

Published: Wednesday, June 21, 2017

The emergence of e-Commerce is slowly transforming the world into a global cyber-store with the industry forecast to grow at a double-digit rate contributing significantly to the air cargo industry’s projected US$5.5 trillion international trade value this year.

The International Air Transport Association (IATA) says e-Commerce is heavily dependent on air cargo so much that industry players have started investing on people and equipment that will best carry out what are needed to boost production.

But e-Commerce, though practiced for many years, is still loosely regulated internationally raising concerns on safety issues, especially in handling items considered to be dangerous goods like lithium batteries which are attached to some electronic products like mobile phones, laptops, tablets, among others, as well as products with certain combustible chemicals.

A lot of so-called DGs are shipped not only on cargo freighters but also on bellyhold of commercial passenger planes.

Over the years, a number of DG-related aviation fire incidents have been recorded in different parts of the world despite exhausting safety precautions in handling them. Thus, unregulated shipment of e-Commerce with DG poses more hazards, according to experts.

Safety concerns

“Our main concern right now is in the e-Commerce industry. The challenge with e-Commerce is anybody in the world can be a seller,” David Brennan, IATA assistant director, cargo safety & standards, told Air Cargo Update in an interview in Abu Dhabi on the sidelines of the 11th World Air Cargo Symposium where he spoke about the subject.
Brennan, who has been with IATA for 15 years now, says e-Commerce is giving opportunities for small and medium enterprises to sell their products globally online, eliminating direct competition with major companies with large capitals.

“It is terrific in some sense offering business opportunities for small and medium enterprises that otherwise could only sell locally but now sells globally. It’s a fantastic opportunity. But there’s a challenge for the airlines because some of these people offer things that could be classified as dangerous goods like lithium batteries or devices that contain lithium batteries,” the DG expert said, noting that basic rules should be applied on how DG products are shipped.

DGR Training Essential

Turkish Airlines Special Cargo Manager A. Bahadir Buyukkaymaz said proper training in handling dangerous goods and other sensitive cargoes is very important for safety reasons for all stakeholders.

The cargo executive said the airline’s staff assigned to handle cargo regularly undergo IATA-certified trainings to keep up with the latest techniques and methods in the industry.

Buyukkaymaz’s office is responsible in handling pharmaceuticals, perishables, valuables like jewelry, high-value products such as electronic gadgets, dangerous goods, explosives, chemicals, liquids, gases, toxic biological substances and even clinical trial biotech products.

If not handled with care, the staff’s safety are at risk, including others around them, as well as the materials itself.

“This type of job requires certified trained people. And we do that constantly based on IATA’s dangerous goods regulations. They must be trained and certified,” said Buyukkaymaz.

Saudia Cargo is another company that also strictly adheres to IATA Dangerous Goods Regulations (DGR).
“We operate in accordance with the highest safety standards for the handling, transportation and storage of dangerous goods, fully compliant with IATA Dangerous Goods Regulations (DGR),” its website reads, emphasizing that it offers this service in all of its network in an isolated storage with highly trained and licensed experts to enforce all international regulations with intensive supervision while handling.

Samsung’s case

Perhaps the most popular case of DG concern in e-Commerce is that of Samsung Note 7 which turned out to have defective lithium batteries.

A man in China who bought a Samsung Note 7 smartphone in 2016 reported it suddenly exploded. Another Chinese customer also reported the same model he bought at an e-Commerce website exploded when he charged the battery causing minor injuries to his fingers and burning his Macbook.
Dozens of other similar incidents across the world were reported prompting the South Korean company to pullout from the market some 2.5 million units of Note 7 and replacing those who already bought the model.
Airlines also banned passengers from using their Note 7 phones on board. Samsung pegged its product recall losses at US$3 billion.

Fire incidents

On September 3, 2010, a UPS Boeing 747 had a fatal crash in Dubai with preliminary reports from the US National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) investigation pointing to the three shipments of lithium ion battery packs that meet Class 9 hazardous material designation as the possible cause of the accident.

In 2009, a passenger flight from Japan that arrived at the Los Angeles International Airport caught fire after a pallet of primary lithium batteries caught fire, igniting an adjacent pallet of batteries. Upon investigation, it was found out the batteries were shipped as ordinary cargo, not hazardous materials.

In Memphis, Tennessee, a cargo-only aircraft caught fire in 2004 halfway through its destination due to lithium batteries. In 2006, another UPS freighter plane was destroyed after secondary lithium batteries it was transporting caught fire.

Between 1996 and 2007, 82 aviation incidents were recorded involving lithium batteries, a common DG type of cargo.
China, the world’s factory

China, the world’s factory, is of particular concern for IATA, because consumers across the globe are drawn by its electronic products which are cheaply-priced.

Sellers, however, often don’t declare what’s in the package they are shipping to save on cost.
“There are regulations in shipping dangerous goods by air but these shippers are not traditional shippers so often are not fully aware about them. A lot of it is ignorance. Still, some people are aware of the regulations but try to circumvent them because it could be expensive to ship dangerous goods by air and so they try and avoid them and put them in the mail,” said Brennan.

Technically, the shipper is responsible for the products and they could be held liable civilly and criminally, depending on the gravity of the offense.

Brennan said IATA’s challenge is how to make people aware about their responsibilities in shipping dangerous goods.
“The challenge with dangerous goods is that we have regulations but how do we make people aware. Unlike driving a car where you have to get a license & take a test to demonstrate that you can drive, that sort of precondition doesn’t exists in air cargo,” he said.

For now, Brennan said IATA is forging an alliance with their member airlines, the e-Commerce community, freight forwarding associations, sea and road transportation groups, including the Universal Postal Union or UPU which has jurisdiction over all postal offices in the world.

“We have been caught by the growth of the e-Commerce industry without understanding the potentials of the safety hazards from allowing just anybody to send things through e-Commerce so we’ve been trying to do outreach. We ran workshops. We put information on our website to try and make people aware about the regulations on dangerous goods,” said the IATA official.

“We want to work with our airline members, shipping community, freight forwarding associations to try and raise that level of awareness,” he stressed, adding, that the group also reaches out to major e-Commerce platforms like Amazon, e-Bay and Alibaba.

Mounting Concerns

The International Air Cargo Association or TIACA has also raised safety concerns in transporting e-Commerce goods, especially when they are sent through posts.

“While major companies such as Amazon know how to properly handle and ship dangerous goods, one-off and smaller shippers may not – creating major challenges for safety. This has serious implications for airline operators, as they need to ensure the safety of shipments in their cargo holds,” a note from the group stated in one of their previous forums.

In 2013, ICAO agreed to new international standards for postal operators to prevent transporting dangerous goods such as lithium batteries via airmail.

Last year, lithium batteries resurfaced as a hotly contested issue amid the proliferation of shipping various electronic items from different online sellers and flight tests pointing to potential fires from shipping the batteries.

TIACA said both Boeing and Airbus suggested not to allow lithium batteries be carried on passenger aircraft but the ICAO’s DGR Panel opted not to impose a total ban and instead added some more restrictions in carrying them.
The group says any changes on rules on lithium batteries will have a significant impact on the air freight industry and the supply-chain.

Late last year, in a joint letter to Ministers of Trade, Industry and Transport, and Directors of Civil Aviation in the world’s largest lithium battery manufacturing and export countries, IATA, PRBA, the US Rechargeable Battery Association, RECHARGE, the European Advanced Rechargeable and Lithium Battery Association, the Global Shippers Forum (GSF) and TIACA have called for lithium battery safety regulations to be enforced at the point of origin including the initial shipper and the battery manufacturer.

They also called for fines for those who will violate the safety regulations in transporting lithium batteries.
Airlines allow both types as carry-on, either installed or carried as spare packs, as long as they don’t exceed the following lithium limitation:

• 2 grams per battery for lithium-metal (contend printed on battery)
• 8 grams per battery for Li-ion, as equivalent lithium content (ELC).
• 25 grams combined (300Wh total)
Source: Battery University

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