BERLIN — The day that IATA announced its new ULD safety program also featured a panel discussion on the very hot topic of the place of ULDs as the front line of defense against lithium-ion battery fires.
It is easy to think of Unit Load Devices as just expensive boxes. After all, the 900,000 ULDs currently in service represent about US$1 billion in replacement cost, and every year our industry spends about $330 million on ULD repair. And the costs extend beyond the ULDs themselves – the number-one cause of aircraft damage from ground loading equipment is from mishandled ULDs, and at least two aircraft crashes are known to have been caused by improperly handled ULDs.
During the session “ULDs: In the Frontline of Flight Safety,” delegates to IATA’s World Cargo Symposium learned that, in addition to their role as shipping containers, ULD’s play a critical role in aircraft safety.
If a fire occurs in a ULD in the hold of an aircraft in flight, the pilot needs to descend to 20,000-feet, depressurize and land. This takes time, and the explosive nature of lithium battery fires can leave time in short supply. In one negative example, shown on a video, a Lithium-ion battery explosion disengaged the base of a ULD. But there are ways to contain a fire in a ULD, whether it’s caused by batteries or other flammable items, and Joe Ashton, business manager with AmSafe Bridport, said one such way was through the use of his company’s Fire Containment Covers (FCCs). The covers have been available for four years, but Ashton said that a combination of apathy, denial and misinformation is why they’re not widely used.
“Lithium cells are prevalent in all aspects of life,” Ashton said. “They are being shipped by air in bulk, in devices and as undeclared dangerous goods.” However, he said an FCC can contain a fire to a single pallet position, shield the aircraft from damage, prevent the spread of the fire and protect the rest of the cargo onboard. According to Ashton, the FCC can contain a fire within a ULD for up to six hours – plenty of time to get on the ground.
Likewise, Bob McClelland, the dangerous goods manager for UPS, explained how the fire resistant containers UPS developed work. Made from fiber-reinforced plastic, they can withstand intense fires for at least four hours. He showed an equally fascinating video of one of the UPS ULDs, in which viewers could hear the cells exploding. But the specially designed container didn’t blow up (it mitigates gas build-up), and the fire remained contained within the box for four hours. And, while not directly ULD-related, he added that full-face oxygen masks are now available for pilots on all UPS aircraft.
McClelland also underscored something IATA has been saying for some time: “Really, the problem is low-quality, non-standard batteries.” He also pointed out that lithium-ion batteries are not the only problem to be considered in ULD design, saying that undeclared cargo and mail of many kinds – even if there is no fire danger – can damage ULDs in other ways.
And finally, Dave Brennan, dangerous cargo specialist with IATA, agreed that fire resistant containers and fire containment covers are able to reduce risk. But he also added that shippers not declaring dangerous goods is a real problem, and that governments need to reinforce the need for Fire containment covers and fire-resistant containers.