Recent crashes highlight risks of air cargo service

Three crashes within six weeks by cargo jets of carriers based at one Michigan airport highlight the risks inherent in the worldwide air freight business.

Crews fly mostly at night in retired passenger planes that are often in their fourth decade of service and work longer hours than passenger jet crews. They face tight deadlines and operate in all kinds of weather.

Two crashes involve Kalitta Air LLC, owned by drag race promoter Conrad Kalitta. The latest happened on Monday, when a Boeing 747 jumbo jet hit the ground just after takeoff from Bogota, Colombia, killing two people on the ground.

“It's not normal that you have this many sequentially in such a short time,” said Robert Baron, president of The Aviation Consulting Group, a company that provides air safety advice.

Pete Sanderlin, Kalitta vice president for operations, said the airline wouldn't have much to say until more is known about what caused the crash.

There's widespread agreement among airlines, pilots and experts that the time has long passed for common international standards for passenger and cargo flights.

“We need to work aggressively to bring cargo performance and operations in line with passenger,” said International Air Transport Association spokesman Steve Lott. “It doesn't make sense to have standards that are different for cargo vs. passenger.”

Under Federal Aviation Administration rules, 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 nonscheduled cargo flights can be assigned 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.

Don Wykoff, chairman of the pilots group's flight rules committee, said passenger and cargo planes should have a common set of regulations.

“It's still a human being flying it,” Wykoff said. “It's still sharing the same air space.”

Worldwide, cargo jets last year had an accident rate of 3.57 per thousand, the International Air Transport Association reported, compared with 2.76 per thousand for passenger jets.

According to Baron, the big three safety issues among air freight carriers are crew fatigue, aging aircraft and maintenance.

Fatigue is a particular concern because of the looser work rules and the fact that the air cargo business generally works at night. Critics say new rules should weigh growing scientific evidence that night workers are less alert regardless of how well-rested they are.

Air cargo companies typically buy passenger jets that have been in use for decades, he said. Properly maintained, planes can last “almost forever,” he said, but cost pressures can lead to corner-cutting in maintenance – making older plans a double threat.

“It's always about time and money,” Baron said.

So far, there is no definitive information on the cause of the two recent crashes involving Kalitta.

According to Colombian authorities, the plane's crew told air traffic controllers minutes after their predawn takeoff that an engine was on fire. The crew attempted an emergency landing and crashed about 3:30 a.m. onto a ranch about 15 miles away.

The plane split apart and its tail smashed into a ranch home, killing Pedro Suarez, 50, and his 13-year-old son Edwin.