Two years ago, a cargo employee of Southwest Airlines made a gruesome discovery when he opened a container. In it he found parts of human heads. The subsequent examination of the suspect shipment revealed four complete heads and 40 partial ones.
It turned out that the cargo of heads did not serve any sinister purpose. The body parts were to be used in medical training, a routine affair for the consignee, but this time the cargo had not been shipped with the appropriate procedures. The heads were packed in plastic containers that had been sealed with duct tape and carried little information about their contents.
Mark Vinesky, manager of air export operations at forwarder International Transport, regards what he calls 'eBay shippers' as one of the biggest headaches for air cargo operators. The term denotes an attitude dominated by an emphasis on going for the lowest possible price with a readiness to forsake service elements, even to the point of flaunting safety requirements. While the term is associated with often private vendors or small companies sending out small shipments, Vinesky stresses that the malaise extends to larger shippers as well. "It's not just guys in a basement packing something in a box; you also have big, smart companies offering undeclared hazardous cargo," he says.
He adds that his company has lost business in some cases because it insisted on compliance with regulations for shipping hazardous materials.
In many cases special requirements are ignored unwittingly. Albert Saphir, president of ABS Consulting, points to lithium batteries. These ubiquitous power sources bear considerable risks and require special handling, but many shippers are not aware of this, he remarks.
"In the past most hazardous materials were handled by companies that understood hazmat goods and regulations. When it comes to lithium batteries, there could be a toy manufacturer who does not know that they are hazardous," says Bob Imbriani, vice president of business development at forwarder Team Worldwide.
Lithium batteries have been linked to several fatal incidents on freighter aircraft. A report by the US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) counted 113 incidents of smoke, fire, extreme heat or explosion between 1991 and 2010 on passenger and cargo aircraft that involved batteries or battery-powered devices. Without new, tighter safety regulations, fires from lithium batteries will likely destroy one cargo jet registered in the US every two years, according to a study commissioned by US and Canadian aviation regulators.
In the past two years lithium batteries have been linked to two fatal crashes of Boeing 747-400 freighters - the crash of UPS flight 006 in the Middle East in 2010 and the disappearance of Asiana flight 991 en route from Seoul to Shanghai the following year after the crew reported a fire on board. In both tragedies, none of the crew survived.
However, the investigations into the tragedies did not establish any conclusive evidence that the fires had been caused by lithium batteries. The US Department of Transportation proposed regulatory changes that would require lithium batteries to be stowed in locations that can be accessed by the flight crew, unless they are shipped in an FAA-approved container or a Class C cargo compartment. The scheme was quashed after a firestorm of criticism from a broad phalanx of opponents, from airlines and forwarders, electronics shippers and battery manufacturers to the government of South Korea.
Even iconic products such as the iPhone are at loggerheads with aviation safety principles. Jens-Thomas Rueckert, manager for training and projects at compliance specialist Logar, points out that it is virtually impossible to remove the lithium battery from an iPhone before shipment.
"To start with, you need a special screwdriver, and you are dealing with miniscule screws. Next you have to carefully push out the touch screen. When you have done that, you have to take a soldering iron and un-solder the pouch batteries," he says. "Apple is non-compliant by design. The iPhone is by design illegal."
Even if they wanted to, shippers would find it hard to keep track of safety requirements around some hazardous cargoes. What makes it hard to establish clear safety processes is the constant change in rules governing hazardous goods like lithium batteries. "The problem for airlines, forwarders and shippers is: It has become a moving target. Almost every six months there are changes in the rules," Imbriani says.
Nor does it help that the cost cutting drives in the downturn have accelerated the exodus of experienced staff at carriers and logistics providers. "We are losing a lot of institutional knowledge because of cost cutting measures," Vinesky says.
The cost and effort associated with educating vendors about the changing regulatory framework are considerable. "Our effort to keep everyone up to date on lithium batteries is probably close to 500 hours per year," Imbriani reckons.
Team has been actively developing logistics services built around the growing internationalization of on-line shopping. This traffic is bundled into consolidations for the international leg of the journey and customs clearance. Team has about 500-1,000 packages a week that have to be scrutinized. To speed up the process, the forwarder obtains advance lists of on-line purchases from its clients, which allows early flagging of questionable shipments for closer inspection.
"This is something that has changed our procedures," Imbriani says.
Saphir is also concerned about the shipment of merchandise purchased on-line. "It has got so easy to do, but it's very difficult to have proper controls in place," he reflects.
For the most part, on-line purchases are moved by postal services. Again there are serious questions about safety regulations and their appliance. "When you tender your parcel to the postal service, they ask you: 'Is there anything hazardous in the box?' Of course, most people say 'no'. Are they every checking?" Saphir wonders.