By Alan Levin, USA TODAY
A woman walked into Bruce Bernstein's Pompano Beach, Fla., parcel shipping store with a box that she said had to arrive before July 4th. Inside were 28 pounds of fireworks, bottle rockets and illegal, high-powered firecrackers known as M-80s.
"It would have taken down a plane no problem," says Bernstein, recalling an incident from two summers ago that underscores the difficulties private shippers have with keeping hazardous materials off planes.
The Associated Mail and Parcel Centers, which represents over 3,000 small shipping centers, estimates that each year thousands of packages like this one slip unnoticed onto planes all over the USA. The leading industry trade group and the government have stepped up efforts to educate the public about shipping flammable goods.
The rapid growth in shipments has made it increasingly difficult to police what goes into packages that crisscross the nation, the association says. Its members are small stores that pack items and funnel packages to the large shipping firms. They handle 29 million packages a year.
Though most packages are transported on cargo jets, about one-quarter of all cargo is flown on passenger jets, according to the Government Accountability Office. Cargo on passenger flights receives additional scrutiny, but members of Congress, such as Rep. Ed Markey, D-Mass., say the problems with hazardous materials in small packages highlight cargo's vulnerability to terrorists.
No one can say for sure how many packages, very few of which are inspected, contain hazardous materials. The government does not track cases of hazardous materials found in packages, but all violations — including airline passengers who were caught with hazardous items — totaled more than 14,000 in 2004 and 2005. That is more than three times the number in the previous two years.
Evidence gathered in several cargo-jet accidents also suggests that undeclared dangerous cargo is common. While government regulators insist that the system is safe, they are stepping up efforts to monitor shipments.
The association urges owners to display posters identifying hazardous materials and require customers to sign a waiver that packages do not contain banned items.
The issue is critical this time of year, says association President Brandon Gale, because package shipments more than double during the holiday season. "We think it's absolutely imperative that we bring it to the fore now," he says. "There is very little discernable effort to educate people about what you can and cannot ship."
The large airborne shippers — FedEx, UPS, DHL and the U.S. Postal Service — say they have taken increasing steps in recent years to protect the transportation system against terrorists and the dangers created when citizens try to send dangerous items.
All of them attempt to inform customers about items that are dangerous or illegal to ship. The Postal Service requires people sending packages weighing more than a pound to produce identification. Clerks have to ask them what they are sending.
Several of the carriers applauded the association's education campaign, but said that they did not believe the situation was as dire as the association claims. "We haven't seen a problem with an increase of anything like this," says Stephen Holmes, spokesman for UPS.
The Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, which oversees hazardous material shipments in the nation's transportation system, has begun monitoring Internet auction sites to ensure that dangerous goods are not shipped illegally, says the agency's administrator, Tom Barrett. Sites such as eBay have become multibillion-dollar businesses that drive huge volumes of cargo shipments.
The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) conducts 2,000 education visits a year, says Bill Wilkening, director of the agency's Office of Hazardous Materials. His unit sets up a booth at an annual beauticians' conference, for example, to discourage businesses from shipping aerosol cans and other flammable products.
Wilkening calls the effort to prevent rogue shipments a "very difficult problem."
A spate of recent incidents highlights how much dangerous material makes its way through the system.
On July 26, 600 people were evacuated from a San Diego office building when a FedEx package exploded. The package contained a backup power supply for a computer, a type of battery. No one was seriously injured.
Prompted by a 1999 fire in a crate of lithium batteries at Los Angeles International Airport, the FAA two years ago banned shipments of such batteries on passenger planes because they can spontaneously combust. The batteries can still be shipped on cargo flights.
A lithium camera battery burst into flames and ignited a seat on a chartered Boeing 727 on Oct. 29, 2004, FAA records show. A flight attendant extinguished the fire, and the jet returned to Raleigh-Durham International Airport.
Several aircraft accidents have been linked to hazardous cargo. Pilots of a UPS DC-8 barely landed in Philadelphia on Feb. 7 with a raging cargo fire. The National Transportation Safety Board says there is no evidence that an aircraft malfunction caused the fire, but they have not identified its cause.
Investigators found lithium-based batteries near the fire.
"If that UPS aircraft had broken up over downtown Philadelphia, I think the public would be a lot more interested," says Capt. Bill McReynolds, a FedEx pilot who chairs the Air Line Pilots Association's cargo committee.
The risks of carrying such items is something cargo pilots think about often, says Capt. Gary Stephen, a UPS pilot who represented the International Pilots Association union on the NTSB's accident investigation. "Cargo airplanes carry radioactive material. ... If one of these things crashes, that radioactive material is going to be released. You are talking about a dirty bomb."