April 01, 2016: Today is ‘the’ day when the controversial ban on the carriage of lithium batteries in passenger aircraft will spread its wings and engulf the air cargo industry with a slight nudge, if not more.
The ban, enacted by the U.N.'s International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO), after pilots and airplane manufacturers said lithium batteries were a fire risk, comes subsequent to extensive reviews undertaken by the ICAO Air Navigation Commission, and the UN agency’s Dangerous Goods, Flight Operations, and Airworthiness panels.
It pertains only to Lithium-ion batteries shipped as cargo on passenger aircraft, and not to those contained in personal electronic devices carried by passengers or crew.
ICAO also has mandated that stand-alone lithium ion batteries (UN 3480) can only be shipped by air at a state of charge (SoC) not exceeding 30 percent of the battery's rated capacity. The 30 percent SoC limit applies to Section 1A, 1B and II of Packing Instruction 965.
In addition, shippers will not be authorized to transport more than one package of stand-alone lithium batteries prepared in accordance with packing instruction 965 or 968 Section II per consignment.
Many large airlines already have voluntarily made the move, but the agency’s action ensures that national regulators will now enforce the prohibition across the community.
ICAO said the interim ban will remain in force at least until sometime in 2018, by which time the U.N. agency expects to adopt new packaging standards intended to reduce the risks of fires or explosions caused by the power cells.
Lithium batteries are suspected of contributing to fires that have brought down or badly damaged three large cargo aircraft over the years.
The building up of the decision to ban the batteries from passenger planes has been growing over the last year, especially as they become more commonplace in the market.
In March 2015, a group representing aircraft manufacturers like Boeing submitted a paper to the ICAO stating lithium-ion batteries represented "an unacceptable risk." A similar fear was expressed later by the US Federal Aviation Administration, which said a battery-related explosion could seriously compromise plane safety.
In December, many of the large commercial air carriers announced a ban on hoverboards or self-balancing scooters with lithium-ion batteries, after reports of these devices causing fire due to faulty lithium batteries.
The US Consumer Safety Products Commission recently said that it has received over 50 reports of fires related to lithium-ion battery-equipped hoverboards. Around 5.4 billion lithium-ion batteries were manufactured in 2014, with around 70 percent of these transported by cargo ship.
The prohibiting of Lithium-ion cargo shipments on passenger aircraft has been eagerly awaited by aircraft manufacturer and pilots associations, who have been the most vocal advocates for the new safety measure.
However, the ban will have significant impacts on the supply chains as cargo aircraft and routes are limited and some destinations are only serviced by passenger aircraft. This will be an issue particularly when batteries are needed for critical lifesaving medical devices that must be shipped for use by patients, doctors, nurses and hospitals in remote areas.
On the other hand, ICAO’s ban reflects an ocean of opportunities for cargo operators, since lithium batteries will be allowed to fly only on dedicated freighters.
Will the temporary ban prove to be a destruction savior or will it be reversed? Only time can tell!