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Release of crash data from Amazon cargo plane expected within days

Recovery of flight data recorder on March 3. Credit: NTSB

Initial answers to the question of why a cargo jet abruptly plummeted into shallow water off the Texas coast last week could be days away, FreightWaves has learned.

Atlas Air Worldwide Holdings’ (NASDAQ: AAWW) flight 3591 was en route to Houston from Miami on February 23 when it crashed into Trinity Bay in Anahuac, Texas. All three crew members were killed.

Over the past weekend, investigators with the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) recovered the flight data recorder and the cockpit voice recorder from the wreckage. “Both have been transported to our labs here in Washington, D.C. and are currently being looked at,” NTSB spokesman Kenneth Holloway told FreightWaves on March 4.

Holloway said that an initial review of the data from the two devices could be made public “any day now,” but that a full transcript of the voice recorder data could take several months.

The Atlas Air jet was one of 20 Boeing 767-300s the company leased out to Seattle-based e-tailer (NASDAQ: AMZN) through a contract whereby Atlas provides aircraft, crew, maintenance, and insurance services to Amazon.

The crash raised new concerns about cargo airline safety, with news reports quoting statistics indicating all-cargo airlines lagging behind the passenger airlines.

Steve Alterman, president of the Cargo Airline Association, of which Atlas Air is a member, told FreightWaves that “it would be irresponsible for me or anyone else to speculate on what might have caused” the Atlas Air crash. “We fly millions of flights and we’re incredibly safe, and there’s no evidence showing that there are systemic problems.”

NTSB will be looking closely at the type of cargo on board to determine if hazardous materials, such as lithium ion batteries, may have contributed to the accident. Lithium batteries are used in cell phones and are tied to the future of electric vehicles.

The crash occurred four days prior to an interim final rule that was issued by the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Association (PHMSA), an agency within the U.S. Department of Transportation, regarding lithium batteries transported by air. The new rules, which are meant to harmonize with international regulations that went into effect in 2016, requires lithium ion cells and batteries “to be shipped at not more than a 30 percent state of charge aboard cargo-only aircraft when not packed with or contained in equipment.”

However, the rules fall short of recommendations made by the NTSB in February 2016, urging PHMSA to adopt regulations that limit the density of lithium batteries loaded in one place on an aircraft, and also segregating them from flammable liquids to reduce the severity of a potential cargo fire.

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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.

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