Did The Carriage Of Lithium Batteries Affect Flight MH 370?

| by Dr. Ruwantissa Abeyratne

( March 22, 2014, Montreal, Sri Lanka Guardian) It is reported that the B 777 aircraft of Malaysia Airlines operating Flight MH 370, which still remains subject to search by several countries in the bowels of an inhospitable area of the Indian Ocean, carried a cargo of lithium ion batteries. The Lithium Battery Guidance Document issued by the International Air Transport Association (IATA) - which is the association of airlines - identifies a lithium ion battery as a type of secondary (rechargeable) battery commonly used in consumer electronics. Included in this category are lithium polymer batteries which are generally found in mobile telephones and laptop computers.

The carriage of lithium ion batteries in the cargo-hold of the B 777 executing flight MH 370 has given rise to the theory that this cargo may have caused a fire in the cargo hold which necessitated the captain to change course towards the west looking for the nearest airport to land.

Another theory - not linked with the lithium ion theory - goes on to say that the crew and passengers could have been incapacitated, causing the aircraft to go on auto pilot and crash into the ocean when fuel ran out. The lithium battery theory has been swiftly discounted by aviation safety experts on the ground that the 777 aircraft has a system of fire suppression in its cargo hold which would have been activated had there been a fire.

The International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) has an entire Annex to the Chicago Convention (Annex 18) on the carriage of dangerous goods by air as well as a Manual of Instructions. The 2009-2010 ICAO Technical Instructions for the Safe Transport of Dangerous Goods by Air incorporated a number of revisions to requirements for the transport of lithium

batteries. Revisions included: development of new Packing Instructions to more clearly state requirements for the various types of lithium batteries; the application of a new lithium battery handling label for certain lithium batteries; as well as enhanced packaging and revised quantity limits for lithium batteries.

A Press Release issued by ICAO dated 13 February 2013 stated that, pending the outcome of investigations by the United States and Japan, the ICAO Council provisionally approved an interim amendment (presumably to ICAO Guidelines and Instructions) that prohibited the carriage of lithium ion aircraft batteries (emphasis on "aircraft" batteries which may or may not be the same as carried on board the aircraft of Malaysia Airlines) as cargo on passenger aircraft. This prohibition came in the aftermath of the grounding of the Boeing Dreamliner by the United States and Japan in January 2013. ICAO did not issue a ban on other aircraft battery types.

In February 2012 the ICAO Dangerous Goods Panel developed new safety requirements regarding the transport of lithium batteries by air which was approved by the ICAO Council and incorporated into the 2013-2014 Technical Instructions for the Safe Transport of Dangerous Goods by Air. These provisions became effective for many States on 1 January 2013.

In consultation with ICAO, IATA publishes annually its Dangerous Goods Regulations which provide procedures for the shipper and the air carrier under which dangerous goods can be carried by air. The IATA Regulations define dangerous goods as articles or substances which are capable of posing a risk to health, safety, property or the environment and which are shown in the list of dangerous goods in the IATA Regulations. The genesis of the IATA Regulations are the United Nations Model Regulations and the IATA Regulations are applicable to all airlines which are members or associate members of IATA; those who are party to the IATA Multilateral Interline Traffic Agreement – Cargo and all shippers and agents that offer consignments of dangerous gods to IATA member and associate member carriers and others to which the IATA Regulations apply.

The subject of carriage of dangerous goods by air is addressed in Annex 18 to the Chicago Convention. The material in this Annex was developed by the Air Navigation Commission in response to a need expressed by Contracting States for an internationally agreed set of provisions governing the safe transport of dangerous goods by air. In order to assist in achieving compatibility with the regulations covering the transport of dangerous goods by other modes of transport, the provisions of this Annex are based on the Recommendations of the United Nations Committee of Experts on the Transport of Dangerous Goods and the Regulations for the Safe Transport of Radioactive Materials of the International Atomic Energy Agency. More than half of the cargo carried by all modes of transport in the world is dangerous cargo – explosive, corrosive, flammable, toxic and even radioactive. These dangerous goods are essential for a wide variety of global industrial, commercial, medical and research requirements and processes. Because of the advantages of air transport, a great deal of this dangerous cargo is carried by aircraft.

Annex 18 – on the safe transport of dangerous goods by air – applies to all international operations of civil aircraft and forbids, in Standard 4.1, the transport of dangerous goods by air except as established in the Annex and detailed specifications and procedures provided in the Technical Instructions. he Annex was developed by the Air Navigation Commission of the Organization in response to a need expressed by States for an internationally agreed set of provisions governing the safe transport of dangerous goods by air. The Annex draws the attention of the States to the need to adhere to Technical Instructions for the Safe Transport of Dangerous Goods by Air developed by ICAO, according to which packaging used for the transportation of dangerous goods by air shall be of good quality and shall be constructed and securely closed so as to prevent leakage and labelled with the appropriate labels.

Annex 18 clearly identifies in Chapter 8 requirements that the carrier has to comply with when accepting dangerous goods for transport. According to these requirements the operator has to ensure that dangerous goods are accompanied by a completed dangerous goods transport document, except when the Technical Instructions indicate that such a document is not required. The carrier is also required not to accept dangerous goods until the package, over-pack or freight container containing the dangerous goods has been inspected in accordance with acceptance procedures contained in the Technical Instructions.

More specifically, the Annex has specific provisions concerning acceptance of radioactive materials, according to which there is a requirement presumably to be complied with by both the customs authorities and the carrier that packages and over-packs containing dangerous goods and freight containers containing radioactive materials shall not be loaded into a unit load device or an aircraft for carriage before they have been inspected for evidence of leakage or damage It goes on to say that a unit load device shall not be loaded aboard an aircraft unless the device has been inspected and found free from any evidence of leakage from, or damage to, any dangerous goods contained therein.

The Instructions are a critical contribution of ICAO to the subject of dangerous goods and safety in air transport. The provisions contained therein prescribe the detailed requirements applicable to the international civil transport of dangerous goods by air The overarching principle of The Instructions is that any substance which, as presented for transport, is liable to explode, dangerously react, produce a flame or dangerous emission of heat or toxic, corrosive or flammable gases or vapours under conditions normally encountered in transport must not be carried in aircraft under any circumstances.

Operators are deemed to be aware of the nature and quantity of the dangerous goods that have been loaded on their aircraft; and in the event of an accident the Instructions require that they must, as soon as possible, inform the State in which the accident occurred of what was on board and where it was located. However, it is understood that, depending on the circumstances and place of an accident, this information may not be readily available. The Instructions also require that operators must report to the relevant authority accidents and incidents involving dangerous goods. For their part, States are required to have procedures in place to investigate such occurrences.

The Instructions also contain training requirements which apply to everyone involved in consigning, handling and carrying dangerous goods, cargo and passenger baggage. These include the need for refresher training at two-year intervals and the keeping of training records. There are specific responsibilities for shippers and operators. Shippers must ensure that staff preparing consignments of dangerous goods receive training or that another organization with trained staff is used. Operators must ensure their own staff and those of their handling agents are trained. Training programmes for operators are subject to approval by the State of the operator.

The above discussion notwithstanding, it must be remembered that in the context of Flight MH 370, everyone is dealing with theories and conjecture until concrete findings are made. As some experts have said, the carriage of lithium ion batteries on board the 777 aircraft may not have any relevance to the aircraft's disappearance.

The author is an aviation consultant with over 30 years of work experience in aviation. He worked for 23 years at the International Civil Aviation Organization as Senior Air Transport Officer and Senior Legal Officer respectively.