Some high-profile incidents relating to the transportation of dangerous goods have emerged, and despite the risks involved, the air cargo industry is beefing up the detection of hazardous freight.
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 per cent 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 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 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 an 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 per cent 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.
Airlines and forwarders have beefed up their means of detection of hazardous goods. DB Schenker employs equipment at its six major US gateways to spot such traffic. Each has x-ray machines, and staff are trained to look out for signs that indicate a hazardous type of cargo.
Technology providers have stepped up their game to tackle the lithium battery problem. Last summer, Smiths Detection introduced a lithium battery detection module as an option on some of its scanners.
According to the company, this is the first of a planned series of smart and adaptable algorithms for the automatic detection of a growing list of dangerous, prohibited and contraband goods and substances.
The company intends to expand this to things like weapons, flammable liquids, currency and drugs. In the spring of 2018, IATA introduced its ‘Dangerous Goods AutoCheck’, a tool for the automatic compliance checking of shippers’ declarations.
To allow this to take in data from paper documents as well as digital information, the airline body integrated an optical character recognition feature into this tool. It has been embraced by several airlines, handlers and forwarders.
IATA had laid the ground for this in 2017 with the Electronic Goods Declaration. Lufthansa Cargo, which has been an aggressive supporter of the e-Freight initiative (implementing charges for paper documents in markets that are e-AWB enabled), was the first to latch on to this.
Last September, it started accepting dangerous goods declarations in electronic format.
While this shortens the acceptance process for hazmat shipments, the digitisation of cargo documents should also facilitate the detection of improperly declared cargo through the use of algorithms that can identify clues to dangerous goods and raise alerts to prompt closer scrutiny.
An equally important strand in the efforts to heighten safety is the work on improved packaging and storage, such as fire-retardant covers or fire-resistant containers. As part of the initiative to develop better protection against lithium battery fires, IATA and ICAO are working on a packaging solution.
This undertaking was originally expected to be completed this year, but IATA signalled recently that the effort will require more time. Given the complexity of the issue and the spread of variations between different types of lithium batteries, a more granular approach than originally anticipated is needed.
Cargolux decided some time ago to forge ahead with its own effort to shore up protection against lithium batteries.
Besides setting up its own training scheme and implementing a strict programme under which all staff dealing with dangerous goods have to be designated, the all-cargo carrier developed proprietary fire containment covers.
Kumar notes that the industry has moved forward to develop and deploy better equipment, such as units that can withstand heat for six hours. “One carrier has started proposing such solutions to us,” he reports.
The forwarder has no plans to acquire such equipment. “We are working with the carriers in this regard. We’re not engaging with manufacturers of such devices ourselves,” Kumar says.
Even without the outlay for such solutions, handling dangerous goods carries a considerable cost for the forwarder, from detection equipment to staff training, not to mention time spent on compliance checks both by external auditors and through internal audits.
If an incident exposes a loophole in existing safety regulations the rules change, requiring further investment in equipment, facilities and training, Kumar remarks.
To some extent, the margins associated with dangerous goods make up for this, but it is important to make the costs transparent to customers, he says.
Higher yield aside, what makes hazardous materials appealing is the growth that this sector has shown. This is propelled by several industry verticals.
The oil and gas sector may have been stuck in slow gear for a while, but the chemical industry, the healthcare and pharmaceutical segments and electronics have been going strong.
The auto industry is shifting gears to a considerably higher volume of hazmat traffic as carmakers are moving increasingly into the production of electric or hybrid vehicles, which is giving a massive boost to the manufacture of lithium batteries.
DB Schenker has been working with several German and US auto firms, and they are showing increasing interest in electronic vehicles, confirms Kumar.
The logistics firm is also moving explosives and some defence equipment. This is the most challenging and hazardous category, but such shipments are not very frequent, according to Kumar.
Nor does this traffic usually move at short notice, which leaves sufficient time for planning. By and large, this applies to most hazmat shipments. “Many of these lanes have very regular movements,” reports Kumar, adding that problems are more likely to come up when an airline has a schedule change or pulls a freighter from a route.
The longer planning horizon helps with the juggling of hazmat shipments with other traffic since they cannot be loaded with live animals and certain other commodities. It does pose challenges with other commodities. You cannot consolidate dangerous goods,” notes Kumar.
Overall, hazmat cargo flows fairly smoothly through the industry, thanks to a stable regulatory framework that does not see many dramatic changes, images of blazing ships notwithstanding. Recent rule changes have been minor, operators report.
“The existing regulations are pretty tight and safe,” comments Kumar. “It’s a mature regime that works relatively well,” says Windsor.