United Parcel Service (UPS) has placed an order for 1,821 fire-resistant shipping containers designed to contain fires for several hours.
The containers include panelling made from a plastic composite material called MacroLite, which is reinforced with fibre and akin to the material used in bulletproof vests. The unit loaded devices represent "unprecedented" protection from intense fires, says the Atlanta-based shipper.
Burn tests from the US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has demonstrated that the containers can contain fires reaching up to 648.9C (1,200F) for longer than four hours.
UPS has conducted both laboratory and live tests on the containers in partnership with the FAA. The US National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) has also observed the tests.
"These containers are a game changer, both for UPS and the industry as a whole," says UPS chief operating officer David Abney. "They represent a quantum leap forward in safety, an area where UPS places the highest emphasis."
UPS will start taking delivery of the containers in September and plans to receive the entire shipment by early 2014.
Along with providing additional safety benefits, the containers are lighter than other storage options and can reduce fuel burn, says UPS president Mitch Nichols.
Through a joint safety task force formed in 2011, UPS and the Independent Pilots Association have worked together to implement other safety enhancements to its fleet, such as the purchase of more than 500 fire containment covers for cargo pallets used on routes out of Asia, full-face oxygen masks and the inflatable Emergency Vision Assurance System (EVAS) for pilots.
In November 2012, the NTSB said that fire protection regulations in the air cargo industry were inadequate and issued three recommendations to the FAA for better safeguards after investigating three major in-flight cargo fires in six years.
It called on the FAA to require fire suppression systems in all cargo containers and compartments. It also recommended implementing requirements to detect fires in cargo containers and pallets earlier, as well as to develop standards for cargo container materials.
Those incidents included a UPS Boeing DC-8 aircraft that suffered damage after crews received indication of cargo smoke, and a fatal UPS Boeing 747-400 freighter crash outside of Dubai International airport. Then in July 2011, an Asiana Airlines 747-400 freighter fatally crashed into the East China Sea after a crew discovered a cargo fire.