UPS last week revealed more details of its work to reduce the fire risk posed by lithium batteries and other hazardous materials in aircraft holds.
The integrator was responding to new recommendations from the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board, which is seeking to revive proposals it first put forward six years ago following a fire that destroyed a UPS DC-8 after it landed in Philadelphia.
Those proposals, including the retrofitting of fire-suppression systems in all U.S. cargo aircraft, were never implemented. But the NTSB has brought them back to the table, motivated by another UPS incident—the B747 that crashed approaching Dubai in 2010, killing the two pilots freighter—and the Asiana freighter that crashed off the Korean coast last year.
“These fires quickly grew out of control, leaving the crew with little time to get the aircraft on the ground,” said NTSB chairman Deborah Hersman in a statement. “Detection, suppression and containment systems can give crews more time and more options. The current approach is not safe enough.”
The air cargo industry opposes full aircraft retrofits on the grounds of cost, but operators are developing their own ideas behind the scenes to make hazmat transportation safer in future.
A prototype ULD design, tested by UPS at the FAA Technical Center in Atlantic City in October, contained a fire in which temperatures reached 1,200 degrees Fahrenheit fire for four hours. The ULD was loaded with 20 working laptops, 50 cell phones with batteries, 300 bulk-shipped lithium-ion batteries and an additional 190 packages containing a variety of items typically shipped through UPS.
The containers have an aramid fiber-reinforced plastic skin, similar to the material used in bulletproof vests and other military applications, fitted over an aluminum frame. A fire-suppression aerosol system using potassium powder, originally developed for the Russian space program, was installed onboard and prevented damage to 95 percent of the packages. The laptops and cell phones still functioned after the test.
Mangeot told Air Cargo World: “We are currently testing 50 of the prototype containers for durability in live operations, with 50 more test containers entering operational testing before the end of the year. Assuming the ULDs perform as expected, we will make a decision in 2013 about broader implementation.
“The containers have other benefits, too. The fiber-reinforced panels are 40 percent lighter than the polycarbonate panels that UPS currently uses on its ULDs, and are 60 percent lighter than some aluminum components.
“The containers will be 50-75 pounds lighter (approximately 500 lbs vs. 575 lbs). This will significantly reduce fuel burn on our aircraft, which carry from 15 to 30 ULDs on the main deck. The plastic panels are 300 percent stronger than existing panels and are expected to be more durable. We project a 25 percent reduction in container repair costs each year. In addition, the panels have ballistic properties that can enhance cargo security.”
While the containers themselves are revolutionary, they are just one element in a broader UPS strategy to mitigate the fire threat. The company has already implemented quick donning, full-face oxygen masks and smoke goggles on the flight deck across all fleet types and has improved its customer and employee hazmat procedures.
UPS’s Air Dangerous Goods Group has provided employees with in-depth information on the potential danger batteries pose, as part of an enhanced training program on how to handle hazardous materials and recognize undeclared shipments.
“A lithium battery that has been punctured, struck by a sharp object, crushed by a heavy load, or even poorly loaded and falls can result in damage that causes the battery to overheat,” says UPS’s air dangerous goods manager Bob McClelland.
Guides have also been issued to shippers giving an overview of the new 2013 regulations for shipping lithium batteries, and customers are being audited for compliance.
Corporate regulated goods manager Sam Elkind says: “Where we had concerns with specific shippers, we’ve sent UPS personnel to the customer site armed with inspection checklists to review lithium battery shipping practices.”
Last September, UPS hosted a meeting of IATA’s Dangerous Goods Board, which approved a proposal from the company that rigid outer packaging should be compulsory for lithium battery shipments. IATA is updating its lithium battery guidance accordingly.