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IATA has defended its controversial decision to vote against a ban on rechargeable battery shipments on passenger aircraft.

At the end of October, ICAO’s dangerous goods panel, comprising countries, manufacturers and IATA, voted 11-7 against a ban.

The US has been vociferous about the risks of shipping the batteries on passenger aircraft after FAA tests. The aviation authority said “the risk is immediate and urgent”, while Boeing and Airbus have called the risk “unacceptable”.

Predominantly European countries and IATA disagreed, and the results of the secret ballot were leaked to media.

IATA initially defended its position saying it had recommended instead that batteries should only be shipped with a 30% charge. However, as has been made clear by IATA itself, the airlines are unable to monitor shippers or check batteries are correctly charged.

“Are they seriously believing Chinese exporters will check?” asked one senior air cargo source, suggesting IATA is laying itself open to accusations of being a money-protecting organisation rather than one lobbying for safety.

“It could have a huge problem defending this stand.”

But Glyn Hughes, IATA’s cargo chief, explained: “We believe the issues surrounding the batteries are not with those that are professionally manufactured. The regulations are already robust. Our predominant concern is with counterfeit batteries, which are not declared or are misdeclared. All you end up banning is properly packaged, real batteries.

“From the information we have, the vast majority of incidents are to do with batteries that are counterfeit, not packaged correctly or not declared. Banning proper shipments would not prevent those problems.

“Governments should have stronger oversight of the industry. This is a consumer safety issue, not a supply chain issue. The supply chain is not the right arena for this debate.”

The panel had been informed of an incident at Heathrow in August, when a handler noticed smoke emanating from a shipment from Hong Kong. It had been marked as lithium ion batteries and the label said the shipment was compliant with relevant regulations.

However, the UK CAA found that the non-OEM batteries’ test report was counterfeit; the air waybill incorrectly showed that the consignment contained lithium ion batteries packed with equipment – possibly a deliberate falsification to avoid the operator’s prohibition on batteries being packed alone; the handling labels weren’t correct; and that the likely cause of the fire was rough handling. If the batteries had been correctly tested and found to be good, it is unlikely that bad handling would have triggered a fire.

The question, then, is if there had been a full ban on the batteries, could they have got onto the aircraft anyway?

It could be argued that the shipper’s willingness to provide false information suggests it could also have been willing to smuggle the batteries into a shipment. It could also be argued that this might prevent at least some badly packaged or misdeclared batteries from being shipped at all.

Boeing has called for a ban until a safer method of transport is available.

In a statement to The Loadstar, a spokesman said: “Boeing agrees with the recommendation by the International Coordination Council for Aerospace Industry Association (ICCAIA) that high-density packages of lithium ion batteries and cells not be transported as cargo on passenger airplanes until such time as safer methods of transport are established and followed.

“Boeing also agrees with the ICCAIA recommendation that appropriate packaging be developed, and shipping regulations established, to more safely ship lithium metal and lithium ion batteries as cargo on freighter airplanes.”

However, Mr Hughes said the FAA and Boeing’s risk threshold was set at a lower point than others in the industry.

Half of the representations made to the dangerous goods panel were from the rechargeable battery industry, arguing against even a reduced charge. The PRBA wrote: “PRBA believes it is premature to adopt a state-of-charge limit on lithium ion cells and batteries, even as an interim measure.”

When the risks, as UPS has tragically discovered, can be as devastating as a bomb, the issue is clearly one of being able to check what goes on an aircraft. And with ever-higher standards of security and screening in the industry, could that technology not be use to check battery shipments?

“We are looking at existing screening technologies to see if they can spot batteries in a consignment,” said Mr Hughes. “Otherwise, we would have to break down all the consignments, which we couldn’t afford to do.”

AP reported that the US, Russia, Brazil, China and Spain, as well as organisations representing airline pilots and aircraft manufacturers, voted in favour of a ban, while the Netherlands, Canada, France, Germany, Australia, Italy, UAE, South Korea, Japan, the UK and IATA voted against it.

Mr Hughes added: “We are concerned about the voting becoming public. Discussions, especially on safety, should be held behind closed doors. You need to keep the sanctity of meetings because people otherwise may feel that they have to vote a certain way. The votes should be based on the facts that are presented.”

The panel’s recommendations are now under review by ICAO’s Air Navigation Commission. It will send a summarised recommendation for further validation with states and organisations, after which a final recommendation is sent for review and adoption by the 36-state ICAO Council.

The process could take “a couple of years, though provisions are in place to permit speedier sign-offs under certain emergency situations,” explained Anthony Philbin, chief communications for the office of the Secretary General at ICAO.

“Forging this level of consensus can get quite complicated at times, which is the main reason for the various stages of validation,” he added.

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