Editorial: Not On My Airplane

Sept. 14, 2009
Logistics Today editor Perry A. Trunick writes: Pilots may have overreacted to lithium battery problems, but they have a right to say, “Not on my airplane.”

Airline pilots are once again concerned about the cargo in their planes after incidents involving lithium ion batteries. The call to ban the batteries from all flights until the regulators and legislators take a crack at putting out new rules may be excessive.

What's wrong with the existing rules? One of the incidents the Air Line Pilots Association International pointed to involved a shipment of batteries described on the airway bill as “used batteries, non haz.” That doesn't sound like a full description much less one that is acceptable under current hazardous materials transportation rules.

Once again these incidents point to issues of proper training. All hazardous materials employees are required to have some degree of training and, in today's commercial logistics environment, that means everyone. Nearly anything might be classified as hazardous in the right quantities and under the right circumstances. Awareness is the minimum requirement in this case (not necessarily the minimum legal requirement).

Used batteries in an air shipment should be the first red flag. A quick look at the weight might ease some concerns that they might be leaking lead-acid batteries, but is “used batteries” enough of a description? The “non haz” descriptor should certainly raise a question or two. Was the person filling out the document sloppy in not providing a full disclaimer of “non hazardous?” Clarity is critical when it comes to safety, why leave room for doubt, misunderstanding or misinterpretation?

Armed with an incomplete description of the type of battery and the almost casual reassurance they were not a threat, it would seem prudent to take a quick look and see if the packaging reveals any additional information. If not, it may be time to call the consignor or forwarder who tendered the shipment and start asking some pointed questions. At the very least, it's advisable to hand the shipment over to someone on the ground crew with instructions that the shipment doesn't fly until more information is provided.

The logistics professionals from the pilot on up the chain have a responsibility for safety. They also have a legal requirement to be knowledgeable on the subject of hazardous materials.

None of the incidents cited by the airline pilots' group involved injuries or death. But the scenario doesn't sound much different from another case where an improperly packaged shipment of oxygen generators was incorrectly identified as non-hazardous and loaded aboard a ValuJet passenger plane. That aircraft crashed, killing all 110 aboard. Of the convictions handed down after the investigation of the crash, one that survived appeal in a US Circuit Court was the conviction for improper training.

It doesn't take training to know that a smoking box is dangerous and especially hazardous on an aircraft. The trick is to recognize the potential risks and deal with them before reaching that point. You don't want to be asking those questions at 30,000 feet. The pilots may be a little extreme in asking that lithium batteries not be permitted on any aircraft, but any pilot or any hazardous materials employee in the chain of custody who questions the safety of a shipment has the right to say, “Not on my airplane.”

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