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Former FedEx pilot warns lawmakers of cargo safety gap

Less stringent requirements for all-cargo airline operations compared with those for passenger operations are causing unnecessary safety risks, an airline representative has warned.

Testifying on July 17 before the U.S. House Transportation & Infrastructure subcommittee on aviation, Joe DePete, president of the Air Line Pilots Association and a former pilot with FedEx Express, said that many of the safety and security layers working to protect the passenger airline industry are absent from regulations covering all-cargo airlines operated by companies such as FedEx [NYSE: FDX], UPS [NYSE: UPS] and Atlas Air [NASDAQ: AAWW].

An example of this “safety double standard” between the two types of operations are flight crew flight, duty and rest regulations, DePete noted. He explained that after fatigue was found to be a contributing factor in the Colgan Air crash in Buffalo, New York in 2009, updated rules that went into effect in 2014 were developed to include all pilots, but the cargo sector was “carved out” of the regulations at the eleventh hour.

“They eliminated cargo from the rule based on an ineffective cost-benefit analysis that showed it would cost the industry about $500 million with only a $31 million benefit,” DePete said. He pointing out that the analysis was based on a 727 landing at a rural area in Florida versus a 777 landing in Los Angeles. “That’s a dangerous way to go.”

DePete also warned of a safety gap within Aircraft Rescue and Fire Fighting (ARFF) regulations governing emergency response. Because all-cargo operations are exempted from the regulations, airports aren’t required to staff rescue and fire-fighting personnel during operations of all-cargo aircraft.

“There is a lack of proper ARFF equipment needed to fight all-cargo aircraft fires at some airports, including nozzle tips designed for penetrating cargo airliner hulls,” DePete testified. In addition, the cargo exemption from the regulation “interferes with fire departments’ ability to get the resources they need for staffing, equipment, training and developing strategies for cargo-specific events,” including fires involving chemicals and radioactive materials, he said.

DePete also called for a rule mandating reinforced flight deck doors for all-cargo aircraft, which were required to be installed on existing all-cargo airliners having cockpit doors after the attacks on September 11, 2001.

“A significant number of all-cargo airliners are still operated without the benefits of hardened flight deck doors, leaving them without a means of adequately separating the flight crew from personnel riding aft of the bulkhead, and potential cargo-hold stowaways,” DePete said.

The potential for a major security breach is magnified because all-cargo airliners frequently carry third-party, non-crew personnel such as couriers and animal handlers who aren’t subject to the thorough background checks required of other airline employees. “These animal handlers carry strong sedatives and syringes that can be used on the animals during flight,” according to DePete. “There is a significant concern by our members that these improperly vetted individuals can use these sedatives or otherwise take hostile actions against the flight crew absent the protections of a primary door.”

DePete testified that there have been five fatal all-cargo accidents in the U.S. in the past decade, with 15 fatalities that include the three crew members who died in an Atlas Air crash near Houston, Texas in February. If all-cargo airlines did as much flying as passenger airlines, there would have been 276 such accidents during the same period, due to the higher risk profile, he said.

“We fly the same skies, fly over the same cities and we land at the same airports, so we really need to close that gap.”

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John Gallagher, Washington Correspondent

Based in Washington, D.C., John specializes in regulation and legislation affecting all sectors of freight transportation. He has covered rail, trucking and maritime issues since 1993 for a variety of publications based in the U.S. and the U.K. John began business reporting in 1993 at Broadcasting & Cable Magazine. He graduated from Florida State University majoring in English and business.