Cargo Issues Take Center Stage
ALPA takes its case for One Level of Safety for cargo pilots to a very public national forum.
By Jan W. Steenblik, Technical Editor
Air Line Pilot, March 2004, p.18
ALPA members who fly for all-cargo airlines are bringing their long-sought goal of One Level of Safety into the spotlight. Thanks in large measure to ALPA’s participation as a full party member in the National Transportation Safety Board’s investigations of some recent cargo airline accidents—most notably that involving Emery World Airlines Flight 17 in Sacramento, Calif., on Feb. 16, 2000—the NTSB has decided that safety issues regarding the air cargo industry merit their own forum.
ALPA representatives will play key roles in presenting issues during the upcoming NTSB Air Cargo Safety Forum, to be held March 30–31 at the NTSB Academy in Ashburn, Va., a few miles north of Washington Dulles International Airport (see "Guest Commentary," page 9).
The Association has been fighting on many fronts to achieve "One Level of Safety" in the cargo airline industry—i.e., to bring that industry up to the standards of the passenger airline industry.
What follows is a summary of the many issues that ALPA will present during the air cargo safety forum.
Regulatory issues—operating rules
Unlike passenger airlines, cargo airlines operate under a variety of regulations. Many cargo airlines, defined as "supplemental" operations in Federal Aviation Regulations Part 119 (in general, all-cargo operations or those in which the departure and arrival times and locations are negotiated with a customer), are governed by a different set of FARs than those that regulate passenger airlines.
For example, FedEx, Ryan, and Emery World Airlines (now out of business) are/were supplemental carriers. Northwest is a "flag" carrier, but ASTAR (formerly DHL) falls in the category of "flag with exemptions." Atlas, on the other hand, is both a flag and a domestic carrier.
In addition, certain FAR Part 121 regulations do not apply to cargo airlines. These differences—for example, differences in flight- and duty-time limits, in requirements to provide weather information and alternate airports, in operational control, and in the lack of a requirement to require flight dispatchers—create a smaller margin of safety for cargo airlines.
Moreover, FAR Part 139 (Airport Certification) permits scheduled cargo flights (often loaded with hazardous materials, or "hazmat") to fly into and out of airports with no requirement for airport rescue and firefighting (ARFF) services. The FAA says U.S. law prohibits the agency from establishing such requirements; ALPA believes the FAA is not accurately interpreting the law.
Cargo airplanes can fly in the same airspace at the same time with passenger airplanes of the same type, but significant differences remain in the safety equipment they are required by law to carry.
For example, the FAA mandated that passenger airliners be equipped with the traffic alert and collision avoidance system (TCAS II) beginning in 1990, with 100 percent fleet equipage mandated by 1993. TCAS will not be required on freighters until 2005, and cargo aircraft weighing less than 33,000 pounds maximum gross takeoff weight are exempt.
Regulatory issues—equipment/certification rules
Equipment requirements for cargo airplanes differ in certain regards from those for passenger airliners. In addition, many cargo airlines operate older airplanes that were certified under different, and sometimes less stringent, regulations or methods than current passenger airliners. These differences result in lower minimum levels or margins of safety for cargo airlines.
For example, the FARs do not require the main (Class E compartments) or lower decks of cargo airplanes to have fire-suppression systems, nor sufficient access for a crewmember to use a hand-held fire extinguisher in a loaded airplane. Moreover, cargo airplanes are exempt from requirements for critical safety equipment required on passenger airliners—emergency exits, cockpit doors, and exit slides. Lack of exit slides compounds the dangers of not requiring airport rescue and firefighting (ARFF) services for all-cargo operations.
The average age of the freighter fleet is about twice that of the passenger fleet. Some of the certification standards that applied to the older airplanes have been superceded. As a result, the older airplanes do not meet the safety standards set by newer regulations.
These newer, more stringent requirements include dual locking for rotating joints, split controls, crashworthiness and flammability standards, component and system design architecture and reliability, avionics capability, autoflight capability, and aircraft performance (i.e., different calculation methods are approved for determining accelerate-stop data for takeoff).
Regulatory issues—FAA oversight
FAA oversight is one means to maintain adequate safety in the U.S. air transportation system. NTSB accident investigations have shown that the quality of FAA oversight is a continuing concern.
The organizational, logistical, and regulatory characteristics of many cargo airlines compound the difficulty of the FAA’s providing adequate and effective surveillance and oversight.
NTSB accident reports contain numerous references (for both passenger and cargo events) that show that inadequate FAA oversight is a continuing problem. Recent NTSB reports citing FAA oversight as a contributing cause include those on the accidents involving Fine Air Flight 101, ValuJet Flight 592, and Alaska Airlines Flight 261.
The NTSB has issued many recommendations concerning FAA oversight. A recent study by the General Accounting Office, the investigative arm of the U.S. Congress, also highlighted FAA oversight as an issue.
Certain factors make surveillance of cargo operations more difficult. For one thing, more than half of all air cargo flights are conducted at night, versus approximately 20 percent for passenger airline flights. These night-oriented operating schedules compound the logistical difficulties of obtaining adequate FAA oversight of the U.S. air cargo industry.
Moreover, the widespread distribution of airports served by cargo airlines, plus the fact that passenger airlines do not serve many of these airports, further compounds the FAA’s logistical problems in overseeing cargo airlines. In addition, the fact that a number of cargo carriers subcontract their loading and maintenance to many different organizations only complicates the FAA’s oversight of these carriers.
ALPA has seen evidence that, without FAA intervention, some cargo airlines consistently fail to comply with the FARs. During the NTSB investigation (in which ALPA was a full participant) of the crash of Emery World Airways Flight 17, the Association conducted a survey and collected numerous pilot reports of safety discrepancies within the U.S. air cargo industry.
These data were provided to the FAA and the NTSB and were compared to the FAA’s Regional Aviation Safety Inspection Plan (RASIP) reports. Emery pilots also reported most items in the RASIP, but the RASIP process never captured a large number of additional events that pilots reported. RASIP reports of U.S.-certificated cargo airlines show that FAA oversight has failed to prevent maintenance, loading, and flight operations that do not comply with established procedures and regulations.
Some cargo airline owners and operators with a history of past and continuing safety problems continue to operate multiple companies under U.S. or foreign "flags of convenience." This situation minimizes the FAA’s influence via regulations and inspections, and can complicate the agency’s surveillance efforts.
The potential for cargo to be mishandled and loaded incorrectly on airplanes is greater for all-cargo airline operations than for passenger airline operations. This is a result of greater exposure, the heavier weights involved, the various sizes and types of cargo, and different containers available to the cargo airline.
Misloaded cargo may be heavier or lighter than thought. Center-of-gravity (CG) calculations for a specific flight may be incorrect even if the flight crew is given the correct weight of the cargo.
Mishandled cargo can cause damage to the airframe and aircraft components. This damage may or may not be visible.
Improperly secured cargo can result when loaders use inadequate restraint systems, or improper straps or tie-down devices. Poorly maintained restraint equipment can fail.
ALPA has been involved in recent efforts to develop an FAA advisory circular (AC) on air cargo operations that would, among other things, establish standards for specific tolerances and accuracy of weigh scales. However, to date, no such standards exist.
Another cargo handling issue is that flightcrew members usually are not able to observe the loading process. Loading crews frequently have not been trained to appreciate the effect on aircraft operations of various loading difficulties or errors. As a result, the likelihood of operationally significant problems with loading processes, procedures, and events occurring is increased.
Adding to all these problems is the lack of commonality and standards for forms and procedures among loading contractors and facilities. In fact, the procedures, training, and supervision of ground personnel who have the responsibility to handle and load airplanes has been shown to be inadequate. ALPA believes this situation is most likely a result of poor training programs, high rates of staff turnover, and inadequate knowledge of specific aircraft and company procedures. This situation is particularly worrisome when the ground personnel are not the airline’s employees and are at an outstation. Moreover, the FAA has not set duty-time limits for loadmasters.
Hazardous materials regulations pertaining strictly to classifying, packaging, and labeling hazmat are adequate. However, operationally related procedures and practices involving shipment of hazmat pose potential risks.
Undeclared hazmat continues to be a safety concern.
Cargo shipments containing hazmat are not always presented as hazmat shipments;
in those cases, they are carried without proper procedures and precautions being
used. The higher cost to ship declared hazmat provides an economic incentive for
shippers to not properly declare hazmat. More often it’s the lack of public
awareness of what a hazmat item is that results
in them unknowingly being offered undeclared.
The Research and Special Programs Administration (RSPA), not the FAA, is responsible for developing regulations for classifying, packaging, labeling, loading, and segregating hazmat. However, the FAA is responsible for enforcing the regulations and for surveillance. This situation can lead to varying interpretations of regulations and differences in applying them.
The U.S. Postal Service is responsible for, and has control over, the hazmat it accepts; however, many sealed mail bags have had undeclared hazmat leak out. In those cases, the cargo airline is not able to participate in the investigation or to begin the proper clean-up.
Flight crews still find that they are not always properly informed of the existence of hazmat on their aircraft. "Properly informed" here has three vital components—timeliness of notification, accuracy of notification, and "compatibility" of the hazmat with other cargo aboard the airplane.
Company materials (COMAT) containing hazmat continue to be shipped as regular cargo, resulting in the pilot-in-command not being informed of their presence or their location on the airplane. Maintenance and stores personnel often need additional training to prevent this situation from occurring.
Loaders are responsible for ensuring that the required hazmat shipments are properly loaded to conform to the accessibility-while-in-flight requirement and any segregation requirements. Flightcrew members that receive and sign the notice to the pilot-in-command only acknowledge the receipt of the document. They do not normally have the opportunity to inspect the hazmat cargo to determine if has been loaded correctly in an accessible location. There is no way to verify the accuracy of the notice to the pilot-in-command.
No standards exist for certified hazmat training programs for flightcrew members. Current regulations mandate that the training program include a list of required subject matter but do not require a minimum number of hours of training. These are left to the individual airline and its FAA flight standards district office to negotiate. ALPA feels that a greater degree of standardization in these areas, particularly when subcontractors are involved, would reduce the potential for errors.
Since Sept. 11, 2001, some confusion has existed regarding which federal agency specifically governs hazmat on aircraft. RSPA is responsible for the basic regulations, but the Transportation Security Administration has imposed policies—some interim, some permanent—that are counter to the RSPA hazmat regulations.
Older aircraft issues, while not unique to the cargo fleet, are more prevalent there, because many cargo operators buy used airplanes that have already flown for many years as passenger airliners. Typically, the airplane first flew in the service of a larger domestic U.S. airline, then moved to a "second tier" passenger carrier—perhaps outside the United States (and thus beyond FAA surveillance)—and then finally to a cargo carrier. Such aircraft usually are less capable in performance, dispatch reliability, and automation.
Older aircraft and their subsystems typically require more maintenance. Many components of these older airplanes are no longer being produced and are no longer widely used. This reduced availability can provide an economic incentive for substandard repairs.
The operator’s decreased ability to repair or replace failed components results in many aircraft repeatedly being flown with multiple inoperative equipment items. Although repairs of inoperative equipment can be deferred legally via the minimum equipment list (MEL), having multiple items inoperative can have adverse ramifications for safety.
Another outcome of the age and ownership history of much of the cargo fleet is that limited maintenance support is available from the original manufacturer. Many cargo airplanes undergo numerous modifications through the supplemental type certificate (STC) process.
Many cargo airplanes in use are no longer being produced. Some were built by manufacturers that are now out of business. Therefore expertise and information regarding these aircraft may not be available to maintenance personnel. Even if the original manufacturer is still in business, the communication and business ties between current cargo operators and the manufacturer often are weak. Limited parts availability often leads to excessive prices and provides an incentive for a market in bogus parts.
The condition and configuration of cargo airplanes can differ significantly from when the airplane was new. In addition, cargo fleets often include a number of configuration differences among aircraft; this reduced standardization can increase the possibility of maintenance and operational errors.
STCs can further complicate maintenance: STC companies often go out of business. The FAA may possess some relevant technical documentation of the specific STC, but it tends to be sparse.
Many cargo airlines outsource both their scheduled and unscheduled maintenance and servicing. This leads to loss of strong operational control and thorough familiarity with the fleet among maintenance and service personnel. These personnel also may have limited experience with specific aircraft models.
Human factors issues
Two human factors issues are flight and duty time and human physiology.
Flight- and duty-time limitations for cargo carriers
operating as supplemental operations do not adequately deal with accumulated
especially for night operations.
For one thing, no specific rest period is required for flight crews involved in these operations when they are scheduled for 8 hours (or less) flying in any 24-hour period. Moreover, flight-time limitations for these flightcrew members are based on scheduled flight time—though operational or maintenance circumstances can extend actual flight time to an unreasonable extent.
Duty limits are entirely inadequate for flight crews in supplemental operations—16 hours during any 24 consecutive hours for a two-pilot crew; 18 hours for a flight crew of three; and 20 hours for four pilots.
Finally, these regulations neither recognize nor accommodate the effects of flying on "the back side of the clock." Night operations are prevalent in the cargo airline industry, and night-oriented fatigue can affect not only flight crews but also ground crew members (loaders and maintenance personnel).
Night operations result in lower human performance in general, including an increased risk of making errors and not detecting or correcting them. NASA research supports the commonly held belief that sleep during the day is inferior to sleep during the night.