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The regulations are tightening. The training costs are escalating. The insurance costs are astronomical. The potential fines are staggering. The repercussions can be devastating, even deadly. Against a backdrop of increased scrutiny, transportation providers -- from small forwarders to large airlines -- are finding it harder than ever to make a business case for carrying dangerous goods. In fact, there may be even more reasons today to not tender dangerous goods than three years ago, when the fatal crash of a ValuJet DC-9 thrust the topic into the national spotlight.
Just look at the outcome of two separate reviews conducted by Northwest Airlines Cargo, one in the immediate aftermath of the Valujet crash, the other this fall.
As government investigators honed in on improperly packed oxygen canisters as the likely cause of the Valujet crash, Northwest Airlines Cargo decided to continue accepting all nine classes of dangerous goods on its passenger aircraft. But exactly three years later, a similar review led to a prohibition, effective Nov. 1, on all hazardous materials from its entire passenger fleet.
Overnight, in the words of Northwest dangerous goods safety specialist Martin Thon, "one of the least restrictive" United States carriers became "one of the most restrictive."
"Keeping in mind all the passengers and crews, we asked the question, 'Do we want to expose the passenger fleet to any one of 2,500 shipping names?'" Thon said. "We are in fact walking away from some revenue. ... But you have to balance that against the safety risk."
Such questions are increasingly before air carriers as federal regulators take a closer look at hazardous materials practices at airlines, forwarding operations and in the shipping departments of major manufacturers. For shippers of hazardous materials, the Northwest decision is part of a trend that is pushing them into tighter corners for their air freight service, bringing them closer to the day when dangerous goods may be barred entirely from passenger flights.
That may leave shippers with freighters as their only option for hazardous materials shipments. But even that route is more troublesome: many integrated air carriers aren't keen to increase their handling of potentially dangerous goods, and the National Transportation Safety Board is recommending tough new rules for shippers.
Before Northwest made its decision, only smaller combination carriers with exclusively narrow-body fleets, such as Southwest Airlines and America West, barred hazmat shipments on passenger flights. But Minneapolis-based Northwest is hardly alone in telling hazmat shippers to go elsewhere.
"We've decided over the last year to no longer do that," says Kevin Butler, vice president of Minnesota-based forwarder Air Plus. "It's just too much of a hassle."
Even those forwarders and carriers that still list hazmat as a service say they don't actively solicit the business, choosing to only tender what comes from large existing customers.
"It's a piece of traffic we handle, but we don't encourage it," says Kitty Hawk Chief Executive Officer Tom Christopher. "In fact, we discourage it." …