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Handled with care

Some high-profile incidents relating to the transportation of hazardous materials have emerged, and despite the risks involved, the air cargo industry is beefing up the detection of hazardous freight, as Ian Putzger finds

Recently, images of blazing container vessels have cast a glaring light on problems with the growing volume of dangerous goods moving around the globe. In the first quarter of this year two such incidents made headlines, but they are merely the tip of the iceberg, according to TT Club – a provider of insurance and related risk management services to the international transport and logistics industry. The firm warned in March that a major container ship fire occurs at sea on average every 60 days. One particularly critical aspect in this is the incorrect declaration and handling of dangerous goods, it noted.


The air cargo industry has suffered fewer catastrophic incidents involving hazardous materials in recent years, but the spectre of such an event is high on most executives’ radar – especially worries about fires caused by lithium-ion batteries.


Traditionally, the term ‘dangerous goods’ primarily evoked associations with explosives and perhaps highly flammable chemicals, but in recent years lithium batteries have shot up in notoriety. Their ubiquity and the sheer volume of this traffic give cause for concern. AirBridgeCargo management estimates that about 30% of the e-commerce traffic it carries contains lithium batteries. In light of the continuing rapid growth in e-commerce, the risk of an incident caused by lithium batteries is not diminishing.


Airlines are wary, mindful of the fatal crashes of a UPS 747 freighter shortly after take-off from Dubai in 2010 and of an Asiana 747F the following year, both of which were attributed to fires caused by lithium batteries on board. ICAO declared an interim ban of this cargo from passenger aircraft in 2016 until a safe packing performance standard for lithium batteries could be established.


They joined a list of dangerous goods that are only permitted to be flown on freighters. Asok Kumar, Executive Vice President, Head of Air Freight, Americas at DB Schenker, notes that main deck capacity is posing challenges. The ratio of freighters to passenger aircraft has started to shift, which is producing some constraints in main deck availability.


“It is an additional complication,” he comments, adding that DB Schenker faced some constraints on that front last year, notably when airlines changed schedules or pulled freighter aircraft from certain routes.


What makes the situation tougher with regard to lithium batteries is that a number of airlines show little enthusiasm for this type of cargo. “Either carriers are putting so many restrictions on them or they’re just refusing them,” says Robert Windsor, Director of the British International Freight Association (BIFA).


Kumar remarks that airlines have not relaxed their restrictions. “I have not seen them loosening the reins,” he says.


Windsor wonders if this firm line may have contributed to the rise in undeclared lithium battery shipments. “We are aware, whether deliberately or not, that people conceal them,” he says.


He thinks that in many cases this is down to ignorance. “The sheer volume of household goods that contain lithium batteries is so vast that people don’t always realise they are classified as dangerous goods,” he says.


He views education as a key strategy to reduce the risk. Stressing that a collaborative, multi-tiered approach involving all parties in the chain is necessary, some carriers conduct workshops to educate their clients.


In light of the large portion of e-commerce that moves through the mail, the need to spread the educational effort extends to postal agencies, although there is a painful realisation that these have limitations to convey awareness of the issue to shippers and ensure compliance.


This applies also to the requirement that batteries should be shipped by air at a 30% charge level to reduce the risk of fire. Neither postal employees nor staff at forwarders or handlers can verify the charge level of a battery inside its packaging. >>

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