Friday, 20 December 2013

The strange case of the Boeing 747 emergency landing at Heathrow – carrying 390 cows

On 17 January 2012 a Korean Air Boeing 747, en route from Chicago O’Hare Airport to Brussels, made an emergency landing at Heathrow Airport. The plane was carrying 390 cows, and was flying over the Irish Sea when there was a fire warning. After an ‘uneventful’ landing emergency services found no sign of fire or smoke. Crew and cows where unharmed. The crew thought the warning was triggered by the presence of the cows, leading to higher levels of humidity. Here is the report from the Air Accidents Investigation Branch (AAIB), which does not mention that the airline was Korean Air.

my really rubbish image of a plane full of cows

It is commonplace for livestock – cows, sheep, goats and pigs – to undergo lengthy intercontinental journeys by air. Surface journeys, on boats, road and rail take far longer so are more impractical and inhumane. But, even though it is routine for livestock to be racking up the air miles, there was something unusual about the Boeing 747 full of cows that made the emergency landing at Heathrow - the number of cows on board - 390. Camille Allaz, author of A History of Air Cargo and Airmail, writes that between 120-220 cows can fit on board a Boeing 747, turning the plane into what he describes as a ‘flying cattle truck’. AirBridgeCargo, an airline which specialises in air freighting animals, flew 316 cows from Linz in Austria to Yakutsk in Russia in 2008. But they were not all crammed into a single plane, they were carried on two Boeing 747s. After a trade deal between the US and Kazakhstan governments, more than 2,600 cows were flown from Fargo to Astana in 2010-11 in Boeing 747s. About 200 cattle were carried per flight.

So why were there 390 cows on the Boeing 747 that had to make an emergency landing at Heathrow? The plane carried a much higher number of cows than is the usual practice. It was fortunate that Heathrow could handle the emergency landing, but the lives of the crew and people under the flightpath and at the airport could have been at risk.

The only other instance of more than about 200 cows being flown on a Boeing 747 that I have heard of is for a Kazakhstan government programme to import breeding cattle from Australia. In September and October 2013, five Boeing 747 flights, each carrying over 300 cows, took place, without reaching the ‘reportable mortality level’, which I presume is a small number of fatalities that occasionally occur during long flights. But the sixth flight, on 23rd October, carrying 321 cows from Melbourne to Almaty, was disastrous. On landing at Almaty, it was discovered that 49 of the cows had died on the flight.

Kazakh authorities reported that the air conditioning system had malfunctioned and the cows were deprived of sufficient levels of oxygen. Levels of ammonia from the cows’ waste built up, and the animals died of asphyxiation. Apparently, the cows were carried  in a ‘bi-level configuration in special boxes’ and the cows that died were on the upper level. The cows were not supplied with food or water for the 17 hour flight, which called in at Singapore Airport for refuelling.Within a week of the incident, it was reported that another 928 cows were to be flown from Australia to Almaty, and it appeared that particular attention was being paid to the required 30 day quarantine period to ensure that the cows are well before the journey.

The incident also raises the question of why entire herds of animals are undergoing long journeys, by air or surface modes of transport, in the first place. There are campaign groups calling for an end to live exports, including Ban Live Exports in Australia, the world’s biggest exporter of live cattle, sheep and goats. The group exposes many cases of animals being kept in appalling conditions and abused.

Sending herds of livestock around the world on jumbo jets also adds to the greenhouse gas emissions from passenger flights. There is alternative that can be implemented immediately, even within the insanities of global food supply chains, with multiple legs of transportation criss-crossing the globe before food finally ends up on people’s plates. Small vials of embryos and semen can be transported by air instead. In the US, USDA is recommending this as a replacement for air freighting livestock. It would be one small, but significant step towards a sustainable food system.


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