Global insight

Explosion of smuggled lithium-ion airfreight sparks new ban

Explosion of smuggled lithium-ion airfreight sparks new ban

THE RISING numbers of deliberately mis-declared airfreight shipments of lithium-ion batteries has forced the World Customs Organisation (WCO) and the International Air Transport Association (IATA) to dramatically call for urgent additional safety measures, writes Thelma Etim.

These smuggled devices are the unexploded bombs of the air transport industry, experts worry.

Lithium-ion batteries – which are known to be vulnerable to spontaneous combustion – are the convenient power sources of so many of today’s consumer products, from mobile ‘phones to vacuum cleaners to cars.

Yet they are increasingly being secreted in airfreight shipments which are deliberately mis-declared or disguised as something else so that shippers can avoid the additional expense of following the correct procedures and the strict packaging requirements set out by international law.

The dangerous transportation of lithium-ion batteries by air

As a result, the dangerous transportation of lithium batteries by air – be it in cargo consignments or in passenger baggage – is on the increase, a WCO official statement warns. “In order to ensure and enhance the safety and security of [air] carriers and other entities involved in the aviation chain, more awareness raising and collaboration among all relevant stakeholders, including Customs administrations is required,” the WCO asserts.

“In this regard, the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) has issued [updated] technical instructions and guidance for the safe transport of dangerous goods, such as lithium batteries, by air.”

Airline association IATA admits that the proliferation of the use of lithium-ion batteries in a vast amount of consumer products is a growing risk facing the air transport industry. In a special border management bulletin (not a press release) the association states: “Compliant lithium batteries packaged, documented and tendered for air cargo in accordance with the Dangerous Goods Regulations (DGR) are safe for transport.

“An increasing number of [aviation] incidents have demonstrated that intentionally mis-declared and/or non-compliant lithium-ion batteries are being smuggled in cargo shipments thus bypassing the critical packaging, documentation and tendering requirements under the dangerous goods regulations,” the body reveals.

IATA also points out that the situation is now also a supply chain security problem, one for which all of the actors and stakeholders have a “collective responsibility” to ensure that the security of the supply chain is not compromised.

The airline body reveals that it is currently working with civil aviation and Customs authorities to increase awareness of this issue across the entire global supply chain network.

“Customs authorities can leverage their communication and outreach mechanisms, both internally and externally,” IATA asserts. “The resulting dangerous situation for the handling and carriage of such shipments must be addressed. Clearly, the act of smuggling contraband across international borders falls under the mandate of Customs authorities.”

This appeal by both the WCO and the airline body comes as the USA’s Federal Aviation Administration and its Department of Transportation Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) has temporarily outlawed the transportation of lithium-ion cells or batteries as cargo shipments carried aboard passenger aircraft.

Even flights that do not carry passengers are under scrutiny. The ban demands that lithium-ion cells and batteries must be shipped at not more than a 30 per cent state of charge aboard cargo-only freighter aircraft.

Commenting on the latest ban, US secretary of transportation Elaine L Chao, insists the ruling “will strengthen safety for the travelling public by addressing the unique challenges that lithium batteries pose in transportation.”

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