Grounding of Boeing’s Dreamliner highlights the danger of lithium ion batteries

The worldwide grounding of Boeing’s 787 Dreamliner has once again brought the lithium ion battery back into the spotlight. Lithium batteries are everywhere – mobile phones, laptops and cars – however their propensity to occasionally burst into flames has had disastrous results for some airfreight providers.

In 2010, investigators blamed a cargo-hold full of lithium ion batteries for a fire that caused a UPS-operated 747 to crash shortly after takeoff from Dubai, killing both pilots. That crash is one of over 100 incidents recorded by the US Federal Aviation Administration linking lithium ion batteries to onboard fires over the past twenty years.

As such, IATA and other governments have issued guidelines for the transport of these batteries. Even still, in May 2012, the US Postal Service issued a statement that it would no longer allow the mailing of lithium batteries to or from international destinations, including Army post offices, fleet post offices and diplomatic post offices. The change was due to new standards implemented by the International Civil Aviation Organization and the Universal Postal Union. However, the restriction did not apply to air cargo shipments and private shipping companies, such as DHL, FedEx and UPS, continued to move shipments of lithium batteries and electronic devices containing lithium batteries.

By November 2012, the US Postal Service reversed its decision and began accepting packages containing lithium batteries installed in electronic devices bound for many international destinations, and Army (APO), Fleet (FPO) and Diplomatic Post Office (DPO) locations.

However, according to Venture Beat, due to the current issues with Boeing’s Dreamliner, Cathay Pacific and British Airways are stopping all shipments of lithium-ion and lithium batteries on cargo aircrafts.

Until the issue is resolved, it is quite likely more airlines and air cargo providers will either further restrict or ban shipments of lithium batteries as well as devices in which these batteries are a part of. This could be a possible boon for those providers that opt to continue deliveries of such items which may lead to an increase in rates/surcharges for transport.

This may also lead to a further shift to other modes of transport – rail and ocean. Some high tech manufacturers such as HP and Acer have been trialing rail connections between Asia and Europe, while others such as Dell have increased its use of ocean freight. This modal shift may increase, particularly for the high value goods that typically ship via air.