Sloths die of cold exposure on Qatar Airways jet in Belgium


Belgian authorities are investigating the deaths of three sloths on a Qatar Airways plane that was trapped by a snowstorm during a refueling stop at Liege Airport, demonstrating again the challenges associated with transporting live animals by air.

In an incident last year, Delta Air Lines (NYSE: DAL) mishandled a shipment, resulting in the death of nearly 5 million honeybees.

Qatar Airways was carrying a total of nine sloths from Peru to Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, when it got stranded for three days late last month during a technical stop in Liege because of snow and ice, according to Belgian newspaper SudInfo, which originally reported the deaths, and other news outlets.

An official in local Wallonia said the warm-weather tree dwellers died from exposure to the cold after the heating on the aircraft stopped or was stopped. 

Airport services company Swissport alerted Belgian officials about the deaths but was not responsible for unloading any cargo.

“We are aware of the incident, but don’t have insights into the details of what happened as no handling was required by Swissport,” the company said in a statement.

An operational audit and investigation by the public animal welfare service are underway. Liege Airport had no comment, citing the ongoing investigation.

Qatar Airways didn’t respond to an inquiry by press time but told Politico, “Qatar Airways Cargo apologizes unreservedly for this loss, which is currently being fully investigated. We transport tens of thousands of animals each year without incident and we are deeply concerned by this tragic loss.”

The six remaining sloths were examined by veterinarians, placed in heated rooms and rehydrated, the publication said.

Qatar Airways is one of only six airlines certified by the International Air Transport Association for following high industry standards for transporting live animals. The stamp of approval is at the headquarters level but not for the specific station at Liege.

In response to cases of inadequate care for the safety and welfare of animals during transit,

the International Air Transport Association established baseline standards to improve the competency, facilities and quality management of live animal shipments. Organizations that undergo training and are validated for meeting best practices are certified by the trade group. 

Delta Air Lines bee snafu

Last April, nearly 5 million honeybees died on a hot tarmac during a transfer in Atlanta after Delta Air Lines (NYSE: DAL) bumped the shipment from a scheduled flight from Sacramento, California, to Anchorage, Alaska, because it didn’t fit on the plane, according to Alaska Public Media and The New York Times.

A beekeeper had rented the bees to pollinate apple orchards and other trees. 

Delta said at the time that bees were removed from their protective cooler and placed on the tarmac outside the airside warehouse when some bees escaped from their crate. That made the situation worse because other bees were attracted by their pheromones, making it appear more bees were escaping and Delta workers were unwilling to put the crate on a plane.

Bees produce a tremendous amount of heat, so airlines often set the temperature in the cargo hold to keep the bees as comfortable as possible during flight. Dry ice can also be used to keep them cool. 

Robert Walpole, vice president of cargo at Delta, told FreightWaves last summer that a chain reaction of events, starting with the customer tendering a larger shipment than booked, led to the botched handling of the bees.

When the shipment wouldn’t fit on the original narrowbody plane, it was put on a widebody that wasn’t ideally equipped to carry bees.

“We’ve obviously gone and put more barriers around our exception processes for live product handling,” Walpole said. Most notably, Delta ground workers are now required to get explicit management authorization for changing normal handling practices for sensitive shipments.

“We put more constraints around who can authorize that [exception] decision,” Walpole said. Delta successfully collaborated with the same bee shipper on subsequent shipments, he added.

Click here for more FreightWaves/American Shipper stories by Eric Kulisch.

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