In covering many global supply chain developments we often note that the timing of public announcements, especially from governmental agencies is an important indicator of what is occurring behind the scenes.
This week, the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) indicated that current fire protection regulations concerning air cargo is inadequate. The NTSB urged the U.S. Federal Aviation Agency (FAA) to call for substantially tighter rules to prevent air cargo fires, including the installation of both advanced fire detection and fire-suppression systems installed on all U.S. cargo jets, as well as the use of fire-retardant cargo containers for cargoes that are highly flammable.
The NTSB action is a response to recommendations that agency made nearly six years ago in the wake of an onboard fire in 2006 involving a UPS DC-8 cargo jet landing in Philadelphia. That was followed in a 2010 crash of a UPS 747 freighter in Dubai which killed both pilots and destroyed the aircraft, and a later 2011 crash of an Asiana Airlines 747 freighter off the coast of South Korea. In these crashes, investigators suspected the presence of large numbers of lithium battery cargoes on-board helped to fuel the fires. According to reports, investigators have been unable to clearly identify causes of both these accidents because of the intensity of the fires. Supply Chain Matters published an October 10 commentary noting calls for increased fire detection and suppression measures, and here we are two years later with little reported progress. Then again, the U.S. Presidential election cycle has just completed and that may be an indicator that federal air safety agencies have run out of patience and will now step-up the pressure on the air cargo industry for increased fire safety measures without political and/or lobbyist interference.
Both air cargo and battery industry interests have been resisting such regulations because of the huge expense involved. Sophisticated fire detection and suppression equipment can cost millions of dollars per aircraft. Supply Chain Matters has previously noted that battery manufacturers have been shifting transport to surface and ocean container means of transport to avoid such exposures and potential expense.
Both the NTSB and The Wall Street Journal note that UPS disclosed that it has voluntarily developed and is testing a new class of fire-retardant containers constructed of aluminum and fiber-reinforced material similar to that used in bulletproof vests that can contain a 1200 degree Fahrenheit fire for as long as four hours. The NTSB announcement also notes that FedEx is in the process of installing a fire-suppression system on its long-haul fleet.
The timing of this announcement is obviously a response to increased governmental agency concerns for the air cargo industry to institute active measures. Effective use of containment devices is more likely the preferred preference for air cargo operators, at least for UPS.
The NTSB does not have the power to directly order its recommendations but the fact that the agency has elected to go public is an indicator that patience is running thin. UPS’s disclosure we believe, was also prompted by these increased calls for action.
The air cargo industry is running out of time to come-up with active action plans and this latest announcements, we believe, are a clear indicator that patience is wearing thin for concerted industry action on increased fire safety for hazardous air cargo.
Shippers of goods such as lithium batteries, or containing such batteries, will likely need to prepare for the fallout of increased measures, including more expensive shipping rates for air cargo movements.