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Risky business

Regulations governing air transport of hazardous freight are complex and constantly evolving. Alex Derber investigates how well the industry is keeping up

Dangerous goods are estimated to account for 5% of all air cargo. Annually, this means that explosive, toxic and other unpredictable items run up almost one billion freight tonne kilometres.


There are nine classes of dangerous goods: explosives; gases; flammable liquids; flammable solids; oxidising substances; toxic and infectious substances; radioactive material; corrosives; and miscellaneous. Many of those classes include subdivisions, such as toxic gases and flammable gases with most assigned to one of three packing groups, ranging from high to low danger. Items in Packing Group 1 require more protective packaging than those in Packing Group 3.


ICAO rules for transport of dangerous goods are set out in Annex 18 of the Chicago Convention, though many countries’ legislations incorporate variations and exceptions. This makes for a formidably complex system, and as a result specific training is required for anyone involved in the transport of dangerous goods by air, notably shippers, freight forwarders, ground handlers and airlines.


Enforcement of the regulations is the responsibility of national aviation authorities. In the United Kingdom, for instance, the CAA assigns a team of inspectors to each airline to monitor compliance. It also publishes advice for check-in staff and ground handlers as well as investigating suspected breaches of dangerous goods rules by retailers, distributors and passengers.


For their part, airlines will perform their own acceptance checks of cargo to assess compliance with dangerous goods regulations. At KLM, for example, an initial acceptance check by certified staff looks at whether the cargo is allowed on a passenger flight. Most explosives and certain flammable liquids, for instance must be labelled ‘Cargo Aircraft Only’. They will then look at data received from the shipper, perform a physical check at piece level, and run through a full documentation check that encompasses the air waybill (AWB) and dangerous goods declaration.


If goods are not labelled as hazardous, staff will look for any other indications that they might be so. Airlines will remove incorrectly or undeclared dangerous goods and then submit a report to the relevant aviation authority.


With 8-9% of goods handled by Lufthansa Cargo classified as dangerous, the operator transports more than the industry average. It regularly performs additional checks and screenings, but in 2016 it reported “only very few cases of un-, or insufficiently declared dangerous goods to the authorities,” according to spokesperson Andreas Pauker. “In most cases, goods were declared as ‘personal effects’ and contained items like a can of hair spray,” he adds.


Changing batteries


The proliferation of personal electronic devices combined with the fast delivery times of internet shopping have led to a massive increase in the number of rechargeable batteries transported by air. Billions are shipped each year and IATA estimates that on certain routes lithium batteries are present in a quarter of cargo manifests.


Those volumes are only set to increase, yet many companies involved in air freight are still unacquainted with the relevant dangerous goods regulations. “Shipments containing lithium are by far the top scorers at documentation errors,” says Kester Meijer, KLM Cargo’s Director Operational Integrity, Compliance & Safety – ISCM. 


“This is generally caused by the fact that shippers who normally deal with non-dangerous goods freight are increasingly confronted with lithium, usually in batteries,” he adds. This unfamiliarity is compounded by a complex set of rules surrounding lithium batteries; these require a dangerous goods declaration in some cases, and, often, AWB remarks and specific labelling.


Even the world’s largest e-commerce company has struggled to meet its regulatory obligations. In late 2016, following a prosecution by the UK CAA, Amazon UK Services was fined £65,000 for “causing dangerous goods to be delivered for carriage in an aircraft.” The fine related to four shipments of items including lithium ion batteries and flammable aerosols.


Discovered by Royal Mail screening staff, the offending shipments occurred from 2014 into 2015, before a change in the law that came into effect on 1 April 2016. This requires that lithium ion cells and batteries be transported on cargo aircraft only, unless contained in equipment. In addition the batteries’ charge state should not exceed 30% of their capacity. Lithium batteries fall into Class 9 (miscellaneous) of dangerous goods, and the revised regulation applies to the lithium ion subdivision (UN 3480) – not to lithium metal batteries. Furthermore, from 1 January 2017 a new hazard label was introduced for lithium batteries on all modes of transport, although there is a two-year transition period to implement this. >>

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