I was living in Dubai on 3 September 2010 when I heard the news that a UPS 747-400 cargo aircraft had crashed on the outskirts of the city killing both crew members. I was working for DHL and this seemed so close to home, both geographically and professionally, that it shocked me greatly. A couple of weeks later, I spoke to one of the senior security managers in UPS and he told me that the cause was believed to be lithium batteries that had been sent from China. There have been several other similar incidents, such as that which occurred on a Singapore Airlines flight on 22 April 2013, which landed safely, and on an Asiana Airlines flight on 28 July 2011, which crashed killing two crew members on its way to Shanghai. Both were blamed on dangerous goods in the cargo hold.
Do you remember reading about the subsequent court cases, about the corporate manslaughter, and terms of imprisonment for the people responsible? No, nor do I. In fact, I’m not aware of a single prosecution and certainly not one resulting in imprisonment.
If we turn the clock back to 2008, air rage incidents were in the news almost daily. Lurid headline stories regaled us with tales of the latest drunken rampage. There were calls for tougher action to be taken and, in the UK, the Air Navigation Order 2009 came into effect increasing the number of offences and penalties for transgression. Later, the sentencing guidelines advised that an immediate custodial sentence be imposed – even for those with no criminal record. Whilst this has not stopped incidents entirely, those who decide to get drunk and abuse crew and fellow passengers in UK airspace can look forward to a large fine, up to five years imprisonment and probably a ban from flying with the airline again. In a recent case, an Irish female international lawyer who abused and threatened crew on board an Air India flight to London was, in April 2019, sentenced to six months imprisonment.
…if hidden or undeclared dangerous goods are discovered in air cargo, the shipper is advised, and reports are sent to the local civil aviation authority. Occasionally warning letters are sent to the transgressors…
However, what surprises me is that when I talk to people in the industry globally about the lack of prosecution action against individuals and companies placing undeclared and hidden dangerous goods on aircraft everyone agrees with me in expressing concern. Yet when I ask why the lax response exists, no-one seems to know. Currently, if hidden or undeclared dangerous goods are discovered in air cargo, the shipper is advised, and reports are sent to the local civil aviation authority. Occasionally warning letters are sent to the transgressors. Some companies put repeat offenders on a black list and close off their customer accounts. You can guess what happens next. Yes; they simply move their business to another supplier who innocently accepts their business and the entire risky business repeats itself.
There is very little to dissuade the perpetrators. Why bother to declare the hazardous materials and spend extra money on safely packaging and declaring it with all the associated hassle and costs? It’s much simpler to mis-declare your clear flammable liquid as a water sample and hope for the best. Few people think about the potential tragic consequences, and I doubt that many realise that a large amount of this hazardous cargo is placed in the belly of passenger aircraft beneath the feet of hundreds of innocent people. Yet such actions in my opinion amount to nothing less than criminal acts, and those who repeatedly flaunt the regulations should face punishments at least as severe as perpetrators of air rage.
I would like to see organisations such as ICAO and IATA place the issue on their agendas with a view to recommending more robust measures to tackle the problem. In turn, our own national civil aviation authorities should review legislation and their powers of prosecution. It should become an offence punishable by the law to place dangerous goods on board air cargo without honestly and accurately declaring it. If you park your car illegally or break the speed limit you are likely to receive a fixed penalty ticket or summons. This should become the standard industry practice for people who commit dangerous goods offences too. If civil aviation authorities started imposing minimum fixed penalty summons for, say, 250 euros for a first offence and terms of imprisonment for repeat offenders it would make the law breakers wake up to the seriousness of their actions. It might even make our government CAAs cost-neutral too.
The author is Global Head of Security Compliance, DHL Express, UK