How aircraft transport dangerous goods

Despite the huge reduction in demand for passenger flights over the past few months, the requirement to transport freight still exists. As there are fewer passengers, airlines are turning to freight to make a profit on the flights that they are operating.

With fewer flights operating between key cities, the cargo space onboard these limited services are now sold for a premium. Bananas from South America, fish from Norway and lobsters from Alaska all need transporting rapidly to reach the supermarket shelves as fresh as customers expect.

However, it’s not just edible produce that’s being transported under your feet in the cargo compartments. Lithium-ion batteries, petrol engines and various chemicals could be crossing the Atlantic along with you and your suitcases.

When potentially dangerous items such as these are carried onboard an aircraft, they must comply with strict rules known as the IATA Dangerous Goods Regulations.

ValuJet 592

On the 11 May 1996, a DC-9 operated by ValuJet took off from Miami International Airport bound for Atlanta, Georgia. Just 10 minutes later, the crew would lose control of the aircraft, killing all on board as it crashed into the Florida Everglades.

The investigation into the crash found that the likely cause was the ignition of improperly packed oxygen generators being carried as freight in the cargo compartment of the aircraft. This lead to an uncontrollable fire, which resulted in the crew losing control of the aircraft.

In addition, the report stated three factors as contributors to the event.

  • The company shipping the cylinders did not prepare them correctly for the flight;
  • The airline had not properly overseen the implementation of its hazardous good carriage policy; and
  • The FAA did not require smoke detection and extinguishing systems in the aircraft cargo compartments.

The crash served as a wake-up call to the industry, with both regulators and airlines giving a greater focus on how they carry dangerous goods onboard aircraft.

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