It Isn't 'Just Cargo' Anymore

By Captain Duane Woerth, ALPA President
Air Line Pilot, March 2004, p.5

"It’s just cargo." For many years I’ve heard that refrain, whether from airline management, politicians, or regulators eager to make an exception for the cargo airline industry. Every time a new safety or security standard has been introduced, the first cry for an exemption has come from these usual suspects.

After all, "it’s just cargo," and obviously airplanes carrying it don’t need collision avoidance systems or hardened cockpit doors or airport firefighters. Well, it isn’t "just cargo" anymore. Today, many factors have come together to put cargo issues front and center on the public and political radar screens.

This issue of Air Line Pilot is dedicated to these issues and to how our union is moving them forward. From guest editorials from officials of the NTSB and the TSA, to an article outlining issues that ALPA is submitting for the consideration of the upcoming national cargo safety forum, to a short profile of each of our cargo-only pilot groups, this issue of the magazine explores ALPA’s approach to the full plate of cargo challenges.

For the most part, each of these issues has tremendous significance for all ALPA pilots. The effort to pass cabotage provisions for cargo has long-term effects for the entire airline industry, just as the effort to enact baseball-style arbitration for pilots, initiated by the CEO of a major cargo carrier, threatened the collective bargaining rights of all pilots.

Time and time again, we’ve seen management using cargo pilots as the first targets of concerted efforts to lower the bar—for all of us. Remember, for most cargo carriers, profit is created by shaving costs, and that means trimming labor to the bone and potentially cutting corners on safety.

Every pilot in our union benefits by improving cargo safety—because we all fly the same crowded skies and use the same crowded airports. Although cargo operations account for only 6 percent of U.S. domestic Part 121 operations, cargo airlines have eight times the hull-loss accident rate in that category. One reason for this lies in those "just cargo" exemptions. As a result, the FAA does not certificate the personnel and organizations responsible for cargo preparation and loading—critical to flight safety, and regulations concerning their qualification and training fall far short. The average age of cargo airliners is roughly twice that of passenger airliners, and they are often less capable in terms of performance, reliability, and automation. In fact, many cargo airliners fail to meet the safety standards set by newer regulations. Furthermore, FAA oversight of cargo carriers is inadequate, partly because of their nighttime operations and the type of missions they perform.

As for security threats to cargo carriers—and new-found public attention on these vulnerabilities, two recent events brought home how wide open the cargo world is. The first occurred when a young man shipped himself in a box home to his parents in Texas via a known shipper. The second was when terrorists shot a shoulder-fired missile at a cargo airliner departing from Baghdad—damaging the airliner severely and forcing it into an emergency landing.

Today, our calls for Federal Flight Deck Officers in the air cargo industry are being heard, and the program is taking shape. Today, our calls for tighter security in and around cargo airliners are making a dent. And when the pressure was on to act quickly, Congress took our views into account in ordering the Department of Homeland Security to conduct a thorough study of the effectiveness and practicality of on-board missile defense systems.

The federal government is genuinely concerned that cargo airliners could be used as human-guided weapons, and perhaps in other ways. Members of Congress are now heavily promoting enhanced air cargo security, and the TSA is developing advanced air cargo security plans.

The best example is the FFDO program. ALPA has participated in a number of meetings with TSA representatives on the special needs of the cargo pilot group and the cargo aviation industry, to help the TSA understand the importance of achieving "one level of safety and security."

The cargo portion of the airline industry is exposed and vulnerable to attack. If it becomes the next target of terrorism, and a cargo airliner is used either as a weapon, or to make a statement of some sort, the repercussions will affect the entire airline industry.

But if we act now to make sure that air cargo is never "just cargo" again, we can go a long way toward raising the bar—for all of us.

s/Duane E. Woerth