The perils of carrying Dangerous Goods on air

Published: Monday, June 19, 2023

Transporting dangerous goods requires safety, precision as well as highly-skilled-and-trained people for the job. Any deviation to the rules could pose danger to both the shipment and the crew, which sometimes lead to death. Experts say more trainings and blending technology to the system are needed to ensure the safety of everyone on board.

By R.Chandrakanth

In July last year, a cargo aircraft, Antonov An-12, transporting munitions from Serbia to Bangladesh crashed in northern Greece, killing all eight crew onboard. The plane was carrying around 11.5 tons of mines, illuminating mortar shells and training shells.

In April of 2013, a National Airlines Flight 102 (Boeing 747-400) crashed, killing all seven people on board, after taking off from Bagram Airfield, Afghanistan. The freighter was loaded with five heavy armoured vehicles. Investigation revealed that improperly secured cargo broke free during the take-off and rolled to the back of the cargo hold, crashing through the rear pressure bulkhead and disabling the rear flight control systems.

In 2019, there were six cargo freighter crashes wherein 16 people died, according to data from the Aviation Safety Network. This time too, it was Antonov An-12, carrying automobile spare parts between Spain and Turkey, which crashed in Lviv, Ukraine, where a refuelling stop was scheduled.

In another 2013 incident, a Singapore Airlines Airbus A330-300 caught fire in the cargo hold, while on a flight from Singapore to Dhaka and had to be diverted to Bangkok and the fire doused on landing. Though nothing major happened, the Air Accident Investigation Bureau (AAIB) of Singapore, observed “While the presence of ethanol, an ignitable liquid which could have fuelled the fire, was found by the investigators, the heat source that was needed to ignite the ethanol could not be determined.”

Nevertheless, the AAIB analysed: “Although the three declared dangerous goods were not involved in the fire in the aft cargo compartment, information regarding the presence, location and nature of the dangerous goods is vital for a firefighting service to plan for response action. The effectiveness of the response could be compromised without such information.”

Safety is paramount

With safety of passengers, cargo, aircraft and the response team being paramount, the stakeholders in the supply chain have to be doubly sure on how dangerous goods are handled and transported, all in strict compliance of guidelines of carriage.

One critical factor in the movement of dangerous goods is the clear communication along the supply chain. Dangerous goods run the risk of creating a host of problems, sometimes fatal, hence, there isa need for updated standard operating procedures. In fact, there has to be preventable practices before exposing the ground handlers and other key staff to such SOPs. This calls for training, re-training and dynamic updating of safety mechanisms.

Training in the entire supply chain is of paramount importance as a high percentage of accidents involving dangerous goods are caused by human error. Every individual in the supply chain must be aware of his or her responsibilities as well as legal requirements, fully aware that they are handling and storing dangerous goods.

Air cargo growth up, challenges too

This is a humongous task but has to be carried out, however, big or small the dangerous goods may be. It is humongous for the simple reason that every year over 1.25 million dangerous goods shipments are transported by air, according to the International Air Transport Association (IATA). With air cargo growth predicted at 4.9% every year over the next five years, the number of dangerous goods shipments will rise significantly. IATA helps identify the risks and works with the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) to amend the regulations providing stakeholders with the most current guidelines on how to handle and ship dangerous goods safely.

Hazmat classified into nine categories

IATA’s ‘Dangerous Goods Regulations (DGR) Manual states “Dangerous goods (also known as hazardous materials or hazmat) are articles or substances which are capable of posing a hazard to health, safety, property or the environment and which are shown in the list of dangerous goods in the IATA Dangerous Goods Regulations or which are classified according to those regulations.”

The United Nations has classified dangerous goods into nine classes and they are: Class 1 – Explosives; Class 2 – Gases; Class 3 – Flammable liquids; Class 4 – Flammable solids, substances liable to spontaneous combustion; substances which, in contact with water emit flammable gases; Class 5 – Oxidizing substances and organic peroxides; Class 6 – Toxic and infectious substances; Class 7 – Radioactive material; Class 8 – Corrosives and Class 9 – Miscellaneous dangerous substances and articles, including environmentally hazardous substances. Some examples of dangerous goods are aerosols, lithium batteries, infectious substances, fireworks, dry-ice, gasoline powered engines and machinery, lighters and paint.

Separate regulations for Lithium batteries

One of the biggest challenges before the air transport sector is the transportation of lithium batteries as the lithium-on battery chain, according to a McKinsey Battery Insights report, is growing at over 30% annually from 2022 to 2030, when it would reach a value of over $400 billion and a market size of 4.7TWh. Mind you, lithium batteries are the most commonly transported dangerous goods due to which IATA has created a unique manual geared specifically to shippers of lithium batteries. The IATA Lithium Battery Shipping Regulations (LBSR) is what shippers should adhere to.

Not just adherence, there needs to be constant training for all persons across the entire supply chain who prepare, offer, accept and handle dangerous goods.

IATA states that safety and nothing but safety is the driving force behind ensuring the regulations are met by adequately training all parties (shippers, freight forwarders, cargo acceptance agents, ground handlers, cabin crew members and anyone who has links in the supply chain) involved in the transport of dangerous goods.

IATA’s dangerous goods regulations are rules outlined in an easy-to-read manual that is based on the International Civil Aviation Organization’s (ICAO) instructions for the safe transport for dangerous goods. While ICAO updates its regulations every two years, IATA changes take place year to year.

Process consistency, automation, reliable data crucial

Last September, IATA and Labelmaster, and Hazardous Cargo Bulletin announced the 2022 Global Dangerous Goods Confidence Outlook which stressed on the need for greater process consistency, increased automation, and more reliable data to facilitate the safe and secure transport of dangerous goods.

“Global supply chain disruptions have put even more pressure on those professionals and companies responsible for shipping goods safely and compliantly. While there are many areas of improvement over the last year, the survey demonstrated widespread awareness of the need to improve DG processes, training, technology, and infrastructure,” said Robert Finn, Vice President, Labelmaster.

“The air transport industry handles over 1.25 million DG shipments per year. The growth of e-commerce and proliferation of lithium batteries in global supply chains are two indicators that the number of DG shipments will grow. To handle them safely, we must further improve compliance with global standards. Almost any item can be shipped safely, provided we have well-trained professionals following globally agreed standards and supported by the right technology and infrastructure,” said Nick Careen, IATA’s Senior Vice President Operations, Safety and Security.

The survey said there is a need for increased compliance as 39% of those surveyed said they only adhered to minimum requirements, while 37% said their organizations go beyond what is required by regulation. A whopping 82% believe their organization’s DG investment cannot support future regulations or supply chain changes and about 25% believe their organization’s current infrastructure is equipped to meet future needs.

The survey made four key recommendations – Technology – automation of dangerous goods operations and establishing reliable processes across the supply chain; Training – utilizing gamification or 3D training experiences to better train and recertify employees; Packaging – utilizing new packaging solutions to further improve efficiency, safety and compliance; and Regulations – using digital regulatory materials to keep professionals updated.

Careen added: “Companies do not have to reinvent the wheel. IATA has digital solutions to improve compliance. DG AutoCheck, for example, automates the complex and time-consuming manual task of checking that each shipper’s declaration is compliant and a package is correctly marked, labelled, and packaged. This streamlines processes and enhances safety.”