Investigators check a CV580 cargo plane crash
DEADLY EXPRESS REFORM EFFORTS
A member of Congress known for pushing aviation safety laws called
for a thorough review of the U.S. air cargo industry, which is plagued
by fatal crashes.
BY RONNIE GREENE
One of the nation's leading voices on aviation safety is pushing for
a sweeping review of the U.S. air cargo industry, saying too many pilots
are dying in crashes.
U.S. Rep. James Oberstar, D-Minn., the senior Democrat on the
Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure, said The Miami Herald's
Deadly Express series last month raised troubling questions about
a business that has become a mainstay of the U.S. economy but has never
received the kind of scrutiny provided to commercial passenger aviation.
While much of U.S. aviation is safer than ever, air cargo -- a
bustling industry that carries everything from canceled checks to car
parts to consumer goods -- has until now received scant attention from
Congress, the veteran lawmaker said.
The Miami Herald found that one cargo pilot dies nearly every month
in the United States, often while flying for small companies rushing to
deliver goods in old planes.
So far this year, eight have died in U.S. cargo crashes, two more
than in all of last year.
''We really do need a vigorous oversight inquiry,'' said Oberstar,
who has been one of Congress' most persistent supporters of aviation
The Federal Aviation Administration, he said, ``still has failed to
address the total spectrum of cargo service.''
The newspaper found that the pilots involved in most fatal crashes
can fly up to 40 percent more hours a year than those working for large
carriers and that their planes often lack the black-box devices that
help determine why airplanes crash.
Oberstar has long advocated one level of safety in the skies. More
than a decade ago, he held hearings focusing on aging aircraft. The
result was the 1991 Aging Aircraft Safety Act, which required special
inspections of older planes.
He also pressed for technological advances and improved maintenance
on airplanes -- safety pushes that helped trigger more reforms.
His next goal: to boost safety in the air cargo industry.
Oberstar is reaching out to the FAA and the National Transportation
Safety Board to provide information that could be used at cargo safety
''This Congress has not done an in-depth evaluation of . . . the laws
we have enacted, nor whether the rules we have promulgated have been
sufficient,'' Oberstar said. ``There is no reason to have different
hours of service. There is no justification. That pilot dies the same as
a pilot in a 727.''
He said any push for tighter rules could face challenges from some in
the industry because improvements in aviation -- such as limiting the
number of hours that pilots can fly or requiring technology like black
boxes -- cost money.
''What is the cost in lives?'' he asked. ``That has to be our
Oberstar joins others in Congress who are pushing for scrutiny. U.S.
Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, R-Fla., has called for oversight hearings by
the Committee on Government Reform, saying the series revealed ``a
troubling pattern of systematic failures in the safety mechanisms of
this important sector of our economy.''
Momentum is building for a review. The House Aviation Subcommittee is
likely to discuss cargo safety among other aviation issues at a Sept. 20
hearing, a forum that could be the springboard to a more detailed look
at the industry.
The Miami Herald documented 69 fatal U.S. cargo crashes since 2000,
with 85 deaths, often single pilots flying for little-known companies.
Last month came the 70th fatal crash, when a 27-year-old pilot died
while flying cargo in Washington state in a 32-year-old Piper PA-31-350.
Last Friday came the 71st, when a small cargo plane crashed in a
remote area of Vermont amid poor visibility.
The FAA said it ``would welcome any opportunity to share the facts on
air cargo safety with Congress.''
The agency said it is ''developing policies and standards'' to push
crash rates lower and noted that fatalities had declined last year. The
Miami Herald reported that fatalities fell last year after a heavy spike
in 2004. They are rising again.
FAA ROLE QUESTIONED
Year in and year out, air cargo's fatal crashes far outpace those of
larger airline operations, and safety advocates across the country say
the FAA pays less attention to this wing of aviation.
The FAA has not done a study of air cargo's crash rate, and its
monitoring system does not fully log all fatal crashes, the newspaper
The FAA maintains that its rules ''provide an extremely high level of
safety,'' yet records show that the agency allows troubled companies to
keep flying despite histories of safety breakdowns and crashes.
One Salt Lake City, Utah, company was fined seven times in five years
for a string of safety problems, yet continued to fly even as the lapses
mounted and it failed to pay most fines. The FAA finally revoked its
certificate -- after one of its pilots, 27, died when his plane hit a
Colorado mountain last June.
In Albany, N.Y., a cargo operator had four planes not certified to
fly into icing conditions, but the FAA brought enforcement action
against the company only after one of its pilots died while flying one
of the planes -- in icing.
''Every accident detracts from our industry,'' said Stan Bernstein,
president of the Regional Air Cargo Carriers Association, which
represents more than 50 smaller carriers and has taken part in the
review. ``We're looking to upgrade the industry.''
Bernstein said one proposal would mandate a required rest period for
cargo pilots. Yet the carrier group is not suggesting that the FAA
require black boxes in small cargo planes, contrary to the view of some
pilots and victims' families who say the devices are vital to fully
determine why a crash occurred. Eight times since 2000, records show,
the safety board was unable to determine the primary cause of a deadly
Said Rep. Oberstar: 'The argument is, `Oh, it's too expensive. I
can't afford this.' Then get out of the business.''