A congressional study of air cargo accidents is targeting small-carrier operations that account for nearly all deaths, and saying changes may be needed in the safety programs and equipment they use.
The Government Accountability Office, the watchdog arm of Congress, made the review in response to lawmakers’ requests. It sent a report this week to Rep. James L. Oberstar, D.-Minn., who chairs the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, and to Rep. Jerry Costello, D-Ill., chairman of the aviation subcommittee.
GAO said of 93 fatal accidents involving cargo-only air carriers for 1997 through 2008, which left 128 people dead, 89 of the accidents or 96 percent involved either feeder carriers or “ad hoc” small carriers. Those small cargo operations also had 79 percent of total accidents, GAO reported.
It polled 27 industry experts about the issues raised, and said the actions they most often listed to improve safety would be to install “better technology on cargo aircraft to provide additional tools to pilots” and for the Federal Aviation Administration to collect data to track small cargo operations.
GAO recommended the use of flight risk assessments to help pilots judge “the accumulated risk factors associated with some cargo flights.”
And while the auditing agency noted that the National Transportation Safety Board found just four out of 443 total accidents in those 12 years to involve pilot fatigue, the GAO report came back to that issue. It said “12 of 27 experts we surveyed ranked pilot fatigue as one of the three most serious challenges to safe air cargo operations.”
It said pilots of small cargo carriers often load and unload the planes, must ready them for flight as well as piloting and then servicing the aircraft afterward. But they are not required to have on-board safety gear such as collision warning systems, terrain awareness technology or an autopilot. Most of those systems are required of small aircraft used in passenger operations, GAO said.
The agency said total accidents fell 63 percent over the review period, but said a number of factors could have contributed to that drop including “the general decline in aviation activity” that followed the 9/11 terrorist attacks with airplanes in 2001.
GAO also cautioned that a much larger number of reportable incidents that did not result in accidents – ranging from a cargo plane losing power to a cargo door opening in flight and an aircraft engine coming into contact with a fuel truck – “are potential precursors to more serious accidents.”
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