Flying in the face of danger: transporting dangerous goods

23 August 2012 (Last Updated August 23rd, 2012 18:30)

When it comes to the air transport of dangerous goods, it is the growth of e-commerce that is giving freight forwarders and airline safety officials the greatest cause for concern these days. David Brennan, assistant director, cargo safety and standards at IATA, discusses how the organisation is tackling the threat posed by the illegal shipment of unsafe goods.

Flying in the face of danger: transporting dangerous goods

David Brennan, IATA's assistant director, cargo safety and standards, laments the growth of e-commerce and the internet.

"It's becoming quite a challenge," he admits. "Nowadays, you can log on to a website anywhere in the world, decide what it is you want to buy, find someone who will sell it to you, make the transaction and have the goods shipped off almost immediately.

"Unfortunately, a lot of these people in business - the sellers - have no knowledge that what they are selling is subject to the dangerous goods regulations. So they may just put it in the post or a brown paper bag and ship it by FedEx, UPS, British Airways World Cargo or whatever. As a result, this is giving a lot of people a lot of headaches."

Unknown threats

Brennan's concerns echo those of other dangerous goods experts, who have bemoaned what they see as the refusal of the major e-commerce sites to cooperate closely in stopping the illegal shipment of dangerous goods.

"The big sites say they have alerts telling their users that they need to comply with the regulations, but that is all," says Brennan. "There is nothing to stop people saying that they will sell lithium batteries, mercury, gallium, fireworks, perfumes or anything else that would normally require special packaging and procedures as dangerous goods, and promising to ship it by post to anyone anywhere in the world. Such items are regulated in transport and they are not even allowed in the international mail."

The thermal runway

Poorly manufactured lithium batteries, which have replaced the nickel metal hydride and are used in original mobile phones and portable devices, are a primary concern. They are subject to a 'thermal runway', whereby they will simply spontaneously heat up to the extent that they catch fire. Testing on the flammable electrolyte liquid within them has demonstrated that they produce robust, energetic fires, which, because they become so hot and re-ignite, are hard to put out with a normal extinguisher; therefore, they must be cooled down completely.

"A lot of these people have no knowledge that what they are selling is subject to the dangerous goods regulations."

The classic cause of lithium battery fires in passenger equipment is when a device is crushed in a seat-recline mechanism. Brennan, however, is aware of one incident on an aircraft where the phone just caught fire for no obvious reason. "The subsequent investigation found that the owner had had it repaired at a non-approved facility and the repairer had left a little screw floating around, which had eventually worn through and caused a short circuit," he explains.

Shortly before speaking to Future Airport, Brennan spent a challenging few days dealing with an illegal shipment of mercury that had leaked.

"We had shipments of mercury out of China that were not properly declared, improperly packed, not identified in any manner as to the contents," he says. "They were accepted and unfortunately some of these leaked onboard the aeroplanes.

"Mercury has a very nasty reaction with aluminium, where it amalgamates with it and will ultimately make it very, very brittle," he continues. "Moreover, it's a very expensive process for the airlines to find and remove the stuff. There is currently one airline with an aeroplane that will be out of service for somewhere in excess of a month."

The Dangerous Goods Board

It has been suggested that there are too many people in too many organisations seeking to tackle the issue of dangerous goods, which account for 5% of all air cargo. But Brennan rejects the argument.

"Poorly manufactured lithium batteries are a primary concern: they can spontaneously heat up and catch fire."

"IATA is involved with the UN sub-committee that develops the basic regulations," he explains. "We are also involved with the ICAO Dangerous Goods Panel and it is this panel that develops the legal requirements for transport of dangerous goods by air."

Beyond that, the organisation has its own Dangerous Goods Board, which has 12 expert members from IATA airlines. "They either have a responsibility for dangerous goods compliance within their airline or they are within the cargo side and they provide, if you like, the practical handling issues," says Brennan. "If improvements are needed, then they feed into the Dangerous Goods Board, and go into our Dangerous Goods Regulations publication. Or if it's something that we believe needs to be taken up - to become a full regulatory standard with the weight of law behind it - then we will pursue it through the ICAO Dangerous Goods Panel."

The unique challenges of air transport

UN meetings, Brennan explains, involve discussion between a lot of different voices - "We all bring our own different perspectives," he states - and he attends to give an air transport view on what the UN body is looking at. Most of the experts on the UN sub-committee represent the ministries of transport of their various states.

"If you’ve got a fire on a truck, you just pull over by the side of the road. If you have a fire on an aeroplane, it’s a very different matter."

"Typically they're more road transport," he says. "That's not to denigrate them, but they tend to be more familiar with that mode of transport than with some of the other issues that air transport faces. I mean, if you've got a fire on a truck, then you just pull over by the side of the road and call the fire brigade. If you have a fire on an aeroplane, it is a very different matter."

According to Brennan, the UN takes the multimodal perspective, whereas the ICAO is primarily a regulatory authority with 19 members on its Dangerous Goods Panel - 17 from member countries and two from non-governmental organisations, of which IATA is one.

"One of the areas that we spend more time on is what airline passengers are allowed to carry, which the UN doesn't always consider because there aren't too many dangerous goods transported on London buses or cruising ships and the like," says Brennan. "We make the point that there are a lot of dangerous goods on passenger aircraft, with passengers carrying things like perfumes, laptop computers and battery-powered mobility aids - all manner of things - and we need to look at whether these are acceptable or if there should be limits and controls placed on how a passenger can carry them."