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Why lithium batteries are a hot topic

by Steve Landells Flight Safety Specialist

BALPA is pleased to see that there have been some movements towards clamping down on the manufacture and supply of rogue lithium batteries, as well as towards the transportation of excessive numbers of, or inadequately packed, lithium batteries. All are dangerous problems that we have addressed in the past.

A number of associations and professional bodies, including IATA (the International Air Transport Association), PRBA (the Rechargeable Battery Association), RECHARGE (the European Advanced Rechargeable and Lithium Battery Association) and TIACA (The International Air Cargo Association) have clubbed together to send a joint letter to transport, civil aviation, and trade regulators in various countries.

The letter has called for more stringent international transport regulations on the manufacturing, testing, labelling, packaging, and shipping of lithium batteries in a bid to crack down on rogue manufacturers and suppliers. Furthermore, issues regarding the transportation of lithium batteries across borders to be distributed from elsewhere have also been addressed in the letter, with significant fines proposed for those who do not comply with the regulations.

Lack of enforcement

With safety being the ultimate priority, IATA’s Director General and CEO, Tony Tyler says that airlines, shippers, and manufacturers have worked hard to establish rules to ensure that lithium batteries can be carried safely. But, these rules are of course only effective if they are enforced and backed up by significant penalties, and he believes that Government authorities must step up and take responsibility for the regulation of rogue producers and exporters.

George Kerchner, Executive Director of PRBA has supported Tyler’s statement, stating that “the actions of a minority threaten to undermine confidence in legitimate battery and product manufacturers.”

Both IATA and PRBA are calling on Governments to address the dangers of the manufacturing and shipping of rogue lithium batteries, as lack of enforcement is increasing pressure on airlines and regulators to unilaterally ban all forms of lithium battery shipments from aircraft. As well as increasing the cost of global supply chains and consumer goods, this ban would further encourage the production of rogues, and slow down the delivery of life-critical and life-enhancing medical equipment, therefore putting lives at risk.

BALPA’s position

BALPA’s position on stricter regulations on lithium batteries is in line with that of IATA and PRBA. With a number of hull losses being attributed to the carriage of lithium batteries as freight, BALPA supports IATA and PRBA’s statement, believing that the regulations that are already in place do not go far enough. As well as this, another issue that BALPA is campaigning to change is the issue of lithium batteries being carried unintentionally in the hold when there is insufficient cabin space.

BALPA is calling for a ban on the carriage of all lithium batteries as cargo on any aircraft, until further research has been carried out to establish a safe number of lithium batteries that can be transported at any one time, and adequate methods of identifying and controlling lithium battery fires have been introduced. We are also calling for the introduction of a system whereby passenger hand baggage can be identified as containing lithium batteries, whether that means marking boarding cards, or attaching ‘cabin baggage only’ labels. BALPA also propose that an education program for the public is introduced, highlighting how dangerous any type of lithium battery can potentially be, and the need for all batteries to be carried in the cabin.

Risk of fire

Although it isn’t enforced by airlines, passengers usually carry devices with lithium batteries in their hand baggage. But, as mentioned previously, a phone, laptop or camera may inadvertently end up in the hold when a passenger is asked last minute to put their hand baggage in the hold due to lack of cabin space.


BALPA is encouraging airline and regulators to look at what steps they can take to ensure devices powered by lithium batteries are only carried in the aircraft cabin, where a build-up of gases or fire can be tackled more easily.

Lithium batteries are highly flammable, and when they short circuit they have a tendency to burst into high intensity flames which are difficult to extinguish. Lithium batteries fires have been blamed either directly, or indirectly, for a number of crashes including the UPS747 freighter in 2010 and the Asiana 747 in 2011. As a result of concerns about the safety of these batteries, bans have been put in place on the carriage of both lithium metal and lithium ion batteries as cargo on passenger aircraft. BALPA would like to see this ban extended to all aircraft (as some airlines have already self-imposed) until such time that safety of carriage can be assured.

It is great to see other associations and professional bodies taking steps to tackle such a dangerous problem in aviation, and BALPA will continue to support their efforts in doing so.