Has your company seen all the headlines about shipping lithium ion batteries by air? How are you supposed to keep up with what’s compliant and what is not?

Here’s a concise overview on the lithium ion battery air transport regulations that became effective in April, along with a preview of what might be expected later in 2016.

The Ban on Passenger Aircraft

This past February, the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) – the United Nations agency that regulates the transport of dangerous good aboard aircraft – enacted a ban on transporting standalone lithium ion batteries (UN 3480) as cargo on passenger aircraft. The ban went into effect April 1, 2016.

Because lithium metal batteries (UN 3090) already were prohibited, the new regulation means no standalone lithium batteries, in any quantity or packaging, may be shipped as cargo on passenger aircraft.

Can you still ship lithium batteries by air? A qualified yes.

Batteries packed with or contained in equipment (UN 3019 and 3481) may still be shipped compliantly, subject to the air transport regulations. Passengers, too, may still transport their battery powered devices and spare batteries on their person and in their carry-on bags – for now. And all lithium batteries may still be transported on cargo-only aircraft, subject to the regulations that are addressed below.

However, you need to be aware that airlines may have variations in place even though the regulations don’t prohibit them on cargo aircraft. Based on the latest addendum to the IATA Dangerous Goods Regulations (Addendum II), the airline variations applicable to lithium batteries have increased significantly. You also need to be aware that airlines may have restrictions that are not published or reflected in the published variations, so it’s important to check with the airlines prior to transport.

New State of Charge Limitations, Other Restrictions

ICAO also has mandated that, effective April 1, 2016, standalone lithium ion batteries (UN 3480) can only be shipped by air at a state of charge (SoC) not exceeding 30% of the battery's rated capacity. The 30% 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 standalone lithium batteries prepared in accordance with packing instruction 965 or 968 Section II per consignment.

A consignment is defined as “one or more packages of dangerous goods accepted by an operator from one shipper at one time and at one address, receipted for in one lot and moving to one consignee at one destination address.”

You should be aware that there is significant confusion amongst shippers and airlines relative to the definition of a consignment. Some airlines will interpret this more liberally than others because any package can be handled by airline personnel and documented according to one air waybill as a single consignment.

In addition, no more than one Section II lithium battery package may be placed into an overpack. Section II packages may not be offered in a unit load device and must be offered separately from other non-dangerous cargo. This allows the airlines to load lithium batteries more strategically with appropriate risk mitigation (e.g., specially designed ULDs, fire blankets, in holds with fire suppression, away from flammable cargoes, etc.)

What’s the bottom line on this?

· Ship lithium batteries by cargo aircraft only (if the airline hasn’t filed a variation or implemented an embargo). You will need a Cargo Aircraft Only label for all standalone batteries.

· Ensure they are at a state of charge no more than 30% of capacity of the rated capacity.

· Pack them separately from everything else.

This also means developing a process to verify the state of charge in the prepackaged batteries, and a procedure to manage the more restrictive packing rules.

Impact on Supply Chains

The prohibition related to passenger aircraft will have significant impacts to supply chains because 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.

Even so, these recent developments prompt the question: Will all air shipment of lithium batteries eventually be banned? Well, let’s hope not. The new restrictions will be devastating enough to supply chains and the societal impacts remain to be fully realized.

From the battery industry’s perspective, they’re between a rock and hard place. No matter how restrictive and complicated the regulations get, the real issue isn’t the rules, but compliance. Without an aggressive internationally coordinated enforcement strategy, the chance of another catastrophic incident is greatly increased.

What is most troubling is that those who have exerted great efforts to politicize the issue, invoke restrictions without fully evaluating the consequences, conducted tests without verifying that the batteries tested were compliant in the first place have done little to nothing to address the real crux of the matter – there are unscrupulous shippers that continue to put us all at risk by shipping poorly designed, manufactured and improperly tested batteries. In many instances these are shipped illegally as undeclared shipments. When will this be addressed? Until these individuals are held accountable the problem will not be resolved.

One can expect that each airline will be conducting independent risk assessments based on guidance published in an FAA Safety Alert for Operators (SAFO). Some airlines may never accept lithium batteries, but only time will tell. Certainly, they may be more selective with respect to the shippers from which they will accept such packages. At best, it will be difficult to transport lithium batteries by air.

The Society of Aeronautical Engineers has started work on a performance standard and it is hoped that once it is completed the lithium battery restrictions and passenger aircraft ban will be revisited by ICAO and the airlines.

# # #

For additional information on lithium battery regulations, visit the Labelmaster lithium battery shipping services page at http://www.labelmaster.com/lithium-battery-shipping/.

Bob Richard is Vice President of Regulatory Compliance at Labelmaster, providing dangerous goods regulatory and consulting service to customers worldwide through his vast experience and knowledge of hazardous materials regulations and his extensive network of dangerous goods professionals. From 2006-2010, Richard served as the Deputy Associate Administrator for Hazardous Materials Safety with the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) at the U.S. Department of Transportation, where he was responsible for the day-to-day operation of the U.S. Hazardous Materials Transportation Safety Program. Richard may be reached at 773-540-0837 or via email at Brichard@labelmaster.com.