Cargo safety: The 30% disparity

It has not been a good three months for cargo airlines. Not because of declining economic conditions or escalating fuel prices, although clearly these are major problems for the industry, but rather because of something more insidious – accidents. In the span of just 3 months, seven freighters of various types ranging from Beechcraft 1900Cs […]


It has not been a good three months for cargo airlines. Not because of declining economic conditions or escalating fuel prices, although clearly these are major problems for the industry, but rather because of something more insidious – accidents.

In the span of just 3 months, seven freighters of various types ranging from Beechcraft 1900Cs to Ilysushin Il-76TDs and Boeing B-747-200Fs were involved in varying degrees of accidents that took the lives of 46 people – both on board and on the ground.

While all tragic, two in particular – belonging to US-based Kalitta Air- have helped, once again, to crystallise attention on the shocking disparity between the safety rules for the passenger industry and those applying to the cargo side.

Aviation safety experts point out this clearly not a normal phenomenon to have this many accidents sequentially in such as short time.

Although investigations are still underway for the recent crashes, there is never-the-less widespread agreement among airlines, pilots and aviation safety experts that a common set ofinternational standards covering both passenger and cargo flights are long overdue.

According to International Air Transport Association (IATA) statistics last year saw seven of the 1,960 western-built cargo aircraft having accidents that caused substantial damage. Incomparison, only 49 of the 17,763 passenger jets had that degree of damage.

This gave the cargo sector an accident rate of 3.57 per thousand, compared with only 2.76 per thousand for passenger aircraft, according to IATA. This means, the air cargo industry had30 per cent more accidents than the passenger side during that period.

“We need to work aggressively to bring cargo performance and operations in line with passenger,”IATA spokesman Steve Lott told the Associated Press. “It doesn’t make sense to have standards that are different for cargo versus passenger.” Indeed.

Under Federal Aviation Administration rules, for example, crews on scheduled passenger flights can be assigned to work up to eight flight hours within a 24-hour period and up to 30 flight hours per week.

Crews on non-scheduled cargo flights, on the other hand, can be assigned to work up to 12 flight hours within 24 hours and up to 48 flight hours a week.

“The current prescriptive U.S. regulations regarding maximum flight time and duty periods have not been significantly changed since well before jet transports came into commercial use in the late 1950s,” the Air Line Pilots Association said in a June report on pilot fatigue.

Fatigue is of particular concern say safety experts because much of the cargo business involves night flights and growing scientific evidence points to the fact that night-workers are less alert regardless of how well-rested they are.

But aside from fatigue two other key areas have been flagged: ageing aircraft and maintenance.With much of the cargo industry relying on retired passenger aircraft, proper maintenancemeans they can be safely used for decades, any cost pressures that lead to cutting corners on maintenance can spell disaster.

In the final analysis there can be no rational justification for having different regulations governing the safety of passenger and cargo flights.

As the chairman of the global Air Line Pilots Association, Don Wykoff stated recently: “Cargoaircraft share airspace with passenger airlines and cargo pilots deserve the same safety protections as their counterparts at passenger airlines.”

Clearly it will take some concerted efforts by a plethora industry players to get the much lower profile cargo industry on the agenda, but in this era of ever more intense cost pressures it’s hardnot to wonder how many more freighter fatalities it will take before something is done to raise the bar on cargo safety.