UPS Airlines placed an industry-first order for more than 1,800 new fire-resistant cargo containers capable of containing intense fires for four hours, and announced other fire-safety initiatives following a report that linked the fatal crash of one of the company’s 747s to a shipment of lithium batteries that caught fire.
“These containers are a game changer, both for UPS and the industry as a whole,” said UPS Chief Operating Officer David Abney. “They represent a quantum leap forward in safety, an area where UPS places the highest emphasis.”
The MACROLite containers, built by Macro Industries, Huntsville, AL, are made from a fiber-reinforced plastic composite.
Burn testing conducted by UPS and the Federal Aviation Administration, and observed by the National Transportation Safety Board, has shown that a ULD with MACROLite panels can contain a fire with a peak temperature of 1,200 degrees Fahrenheit for more than four hours.
“That time frame would give a flight crew ample time to land safely in the event of an in-flight fire,” the airline said in a press release.
Time was a crucial factor for the crew aboard UPS Flight 6 as it left Dubai International Airport on Sept. 3, 2011 en route to Cologne Bonn Airport. The crew reported smoke in the cockpit just 20 minute after takeoff and returned to Dubai for an emergency landing.
As more smoke filled the cockpit and equipment failed, the plane was too high on its initial approach to the airport. The plane was turning back for another approach when it crashed near a military base, killing Captain Doug Lampe and First Officer Matthew Bell.
UPS made the ULD announcement one day before the United Arab Emirates’ General Civil Aviation Authority released a 322-page final incident report that confirmed a shipment of lithium batteries caught fire and caused the crash.
According to the report, the GCAA found “with reasonable certainty” that the fire originated from “an element” of the cargo that contained, among other items, lithium batteries.
The authority worked with UPS, Boeing, the National Transportation Safety Board and the Federal Aviation Administration in its three-year investigation.
“It is possible that a lithium-type battery or batteries, for reasons which cannot be established, went into an energetic failure characterized by thermal runaway and auto ignited, starting a chain reaction which spread to the available combustible material,” said the GCAA report.
Delivery of the new ULDs for UPS will begin this month and is expected to be completed by early 2014.
About 75 test containers have already been evaluated on more than 5,600 trips during an eight-month period.
“We have tested these containers in the laboratory and in live operations,” said UPS Airlines President Mitch Nichols. “They will enhance safety and increase durability, and they are lighter, which will reduce fuel burn and supports our ongoing sustainability efforts.”
The new containers are the latest in a series of fire safety enhancements recommended by a joint safety task force run by UPS and the Independent Pilots Association, the union that represents UPS’ pilots.
“As UPS pilots, we are determined to do everything in our power to minimize the risk associated with on-board smoke and fire events,” said IPA president Robert Travis. “This includes proper regulations governing the carriage of hazardous materials [such as] lithium batteries.”
Other measures include the following:
- Fire-containment covers for cargo pallets: UPS purchased 575 of the covers, which can contain a 1,200-degree fire for four hours.
- Full-face oxygen masks: UPS has already installed these masks, which can be easily put on with one hand in three seconds on its 747s and MD-11s. The masks will be installed throughout its fleet by next year.
- Emergency Vision Assurance System (EVAS): UPS has completed installation of this inflatable cockpit vision system on its 747-400 fleet. The system enables pilots to see their instruments and out the cockpit window even when smoke is present.
The proposed changes will ensure that lithium batteries are designed to withstand normal transportation conditions and packaged to reduce damage.
Fires are rare, but one of the most feared events a crew can face.
While the DOT has no immediate plans to ban the batteries from carry-on luggage, the risks of batteries in airplane cabins are being studied.