Malaysia Airlines’ missing Boeing 777-200ER had been transporting 200kg of lithium batteries among other freight on its ill-fated service to Beijing.
But there is no evidence that the potentially hazardous cargo contributed to the loss of the aircraft on 8 March.
In the first unequivocal clarification that lithium batteries were on board, Malaysia Airlines chief executive Ahmad Jauhari Yahya insisted that such goods were safely handled by the carrier.
Speaking during a briefing on 24 March, he said the cargo manifest was with investigators analysing the disappearance of flight MH370.
But he confirmed that it was transporting 200kg of lithium batteries, along with boxed fruit and some electrical equipment, including radios bound for China.
Yahya did not elaborate on the nature of the battery shipment. But he insisted: “Those are considered to be non-hazardous as long as you pack them in a manner that’s recommended.”
Lithium batteries are subject to transportation restrictions and have been attributed to previous fires including the fatal blazes which brought down a Boeing 747-400F in 2010 and another in 2011.
Both aircraft attempted to divert after the outbreak of fire but ultimately failed to reach the chosen diversion airport as damage to control systems became overwhelming.
No reason has yet been determined for MH370’s sudden change of course or the loss of all communications, including the transponder. But there was no radio transmission from the crew and – unlike the 747 fire accidents – no distress call.
While the ACARS system, at some point in the flight, was deactivated there was no transmission beforehand of any ACARS fault message indicative of an emergency.
Military surveillance data suggests MH370 was still airborne, heading west, an hour after its last contact, while analysis of satcom communications indicate the aircraft was still relaying electronic handshake signals beyond this time.
Malaysia Airlines is particularly sensitive to the issue of transporting hazardous goods. One of its Airbus A330s was destroyed by a chemical spill in March 2000, after returning from Beijing with a shipment of corrosive liquid, oxalyl chloride, which had been declared as a different, non-toxic solid substance.