A decade ago, a South Korean airline Asiana B747F crashed following a fire in its cargo compartment. The aircraft was carrying a large automotive lithium ion battery, loaded next to a large quantity of flammable liquid.
The scheduled cargo flight from Incheon International Airport, Incheon, South Korea, to Shanghai Pudong International Airport in China, crashed into the international waters about 130km west of Jeju International Airport after the flight crew reported a cargo fire and attempted to divert to Jeju International Airport.
Aboard the aircraft were two pilots, both fatally injured, and the aircraft was destroyed.
Immediately after the accident, search and rescue operations have been initiated, and about two hours after the accident, the South Korean Coast Guard recovered some floating debris and wreckage at the accident site.
The Aviation and Railway Accident Investigation Board (ARAIB) determined the probable cause of this accident as follows: a fire developed on or near the pallets containing dangerous goods but no physical evidence of the cause of the fire was found.
The fire rapidly escalated into a large uncontained fire, and this caused some portions of the fuselage to separate from the aircraft in midair, thereby resulting in the crash.
More recently, Qatar Airways had a close call in one of its flights from the sub-continent to Doha, from a very small lithium battery.
Fortunately, the Qatar Airways pilot took decisive action and made an emergency landing in Pakistan. The airline unloaded a container that had two bags burning.
“We were very fortunate that it generated enough smoke to alert our pilot. And we did an emergency landing in an airport in Pakistan,” Qatar Airways Group chief executive HE Akbar al-Baker told reporters in Doha recently.
“Most of the fires we have seen in our aircraft were due to undeclared, badly packed, and sometimes refurbished lithium batteries being loaded on the aircraft,” al-Baker noted.
While shortage of capacity is a challenge, the bigger problem he said is shippers not declaring their consignments correctly. “Specifically, we must address the lithium battery threat. I am afraid that the industry will only wake up to this if there is a disaster.”
Qatar Airways, al-Baker said is constantly flagging up this problem and is the launch customer for new fire-retardant containers.
The national airline has ordered 400,000 fire resistant containers to carry lithium ion batteries among other highly flammable products.
“Over the next two years, we will replace all our containers with the fire-retardant variety. They can contain a fire for up to four hours.
“But not every airline can afford to do this. We must work harder to have robust regulations in place as soon as possible. We cannot allow a few agents that simply don’t care to put dangerous goods on an aircraft without declaring them,” al-Baker noted.
Meanwhile, the International Air Transport Association (IATA) called on governments to further support the safe carriage of lithium batteries by developing and implementing global standards for screening, fire-testing, and incident information sharing.
As with many products shipped by air, effective standards, globally implemented, are needed to ensure safety. The challenge is the rapid increase in global demand of lithium batteries (the market is growing 30% annually) bringing many new shippers into air cargo supply chains.
A critical risk that is evolving, for example, concerns incidents of undeclared or mis-declared shipments.
IATA has long called for governments to step-up enforcement of safety regulation for the transport of lithium batteries. This should include stiffer penalties for rogue shippers and the criminalisation of egregious or wilful offences.
It has also asked governments to shore up those activities with additional measures.
IATA’s Director General Willie Walsh said: “Airlines, shippers, manufacturers, and governments all want to ensure the safe transport of lithium batteries by air. It’s a joint responsibility. The industry is raising the bar to consistently apply existing standards and share critical information on rogue shippers. But there are some areas where the leadership of governments is critical.
“Stronger enforcement of existing regulations and the criminalisation of abuses will send a strong signal to rogue shippers. And the accelerated development of standards for screening, information exchange, and fire containment will give the industry even more effective tools to work with.”
According to the United States Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), there were many air/airport incidents involving lithium batteries carried as cargo or baggage that have been recorded since March 1991.
Most of these incidents included smoke, fire, extreme heat or explosion involving lithium batteries or unknown battery types. Incidents have included devices such as e-cigarettes, laptops, cell phones, and tablets. The severity of these incidents ranged from minor injuries to emergency landings.
Unless something is done to prevent similar disasters due to fire in cargo hold caused by lithium batteries, the FAA says such crashes are all but inevitable in future!