Navigating a hazardous landscape
If it’s to be declared as an item of dangerous goods, that implies a large set of responsibilities that then have to be undertaken by the shipper, who is declaring that as an item of dangerous goods; by the airline, who are supporting it; by the freight forwarders, who are moving it from the shipper to the airport; and of course, by the authorities, who are going to ensure that the compliances are being observed at all parts.
ACW: Currently, air transportation of lithium batteries has been in the news. What’s ICAO’s view on lithium batteries?
Rooney: The UN decided a very small number of batteries can be exempted from most of the requirements using a special provision if it has met certain UN tests. For air transport, we’ve decided that for those excepted lithium batteries, those which have been transported as cargo — not packed with equipment or contained in equipment— we have, to a very large extent, removed or certainly reduced the number of exemptions that are possible. Now, with a very few exceptions, they will have to meet most of the requirements in the technical instructions. One of the most important aspects is that it now means that the pilots will be notified that these shipments are onboard.
We are aware of bulk shipments of these batteries being transported on aircraft. When the UN were designing this system originally, I don’t think that the idea of 80,000 batteries in a bulk shipment [crossed their minds], and yet that is what has happened. We’ve had these very large bulk shipments coming through. We’ve had lengthy discussions in the ICAO panel; lithium batteries is certainly one of the hot topics.
We believe that we now have a fairly balanced approach, that we addressed the needs of operators, the pilots, the shippers and the regulators. It is fair to say that ICAO has devoted considerable attention to the subject of lithium batteries. We had our panel meeting last October; we were unable to come to a final decision on lithium batteries, and we held a special working group of the panel last February. The amendments will come through for 2013.
ACW: On an issue like this, how does the UN react when you make the rules more restrictive?
Rooney: We would obviously inform the UN when we are being more restrictive. But they are also aware that air transport is, after all, the only mode of transport where the dangerous goods are being transported along with passengers. The UN understands the reason for the extra stringency that we apply.