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Regulators must address the risk of lithium batteries on aircraft before hundreds of people die, urged Guillaume Halleux, head of cargo at Qatar Airways.

In an impassioned speech at the World Cargo Symposium in Dublin yesterday, Mr Halleux pointed to three lithium battery-related incidents he had seen at the carrier.

They all featured fraudulent shipment declarations, and all saw no action taken against the shipper. He said the shipments were poorly packaged, with, in one case, the batteries separated by single pieces of A4.

Mr Halleux said it was “pure luck” that two of the three incidents hadn’t happened during a flight: one fire was triggered by a handler dropping the shipment when a forklift fell into a pothole at JFK Airport; and another shipment had been removed from the aircraft after it landed early due to tailwinds, when the damage occurred.

“So we did what we do best,” he said. “We ban, and we restrict.”

The shippers responsible were banned from using the airline – but, he explained, rogue shippers just pop up again under a different name.

“We have no visibility over the cargo given to us. We screen for explosives and bombs, but we don’t look for lithium.”

He explained: “The technology exists to do so, but it isn’t used. You can ban shippers all you like, but there is no point if you are not checking the cargo.

“The regulators say to me, ‘well, go on then, check the cargo’. But that would mean the cut-off time for flights would go from six hours to 12 and ground handling costs would double. So I’d be taking myself out of the market. Other airlines may start to do the same, but there will always be a cowboy who doesn’t.”

He believes the way to manage the problem is regulation.

“We have agreed to tackle it one more time; we need to reach out to regulators to create an even playing field.”

He pointed out that the airline industry had seen liquids banned on board in just two months, and: “I’ve been talking about lithium batteries for three years.

“I am very concerned it will take a crash – and the loss of 300 people – for this to change. And then the regulators will say ‘you knew, and you did nothing’.”

IATA’s global head of cargo, Brendan Sullivan, said governments needed to prioritise criminalising fraudulent shippers.

“More effort goes into criminalising fake Chanel bags than goes into lithium batteries.”

IATA has launched a certification programme in a bid to boost safety in the carriage of lithium batteries. Director general Willie Walsh said: “It is vital that we can ship them safely by air, either with finished products or as components in global supply chains.

“That’s why we developed the CEIV Lithium Battery certification. It gives shippers and airlines assurance that certified logistics companies operate to the highest safety and security standards when shipping lithium batteries.”

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