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Air Cargo Crashes Outpace Passenger Mishaps


It has been a long time - almost five years - since the last major passenger plane crash in the United States. Cargo planes are another matter. A series now running in the Miami Herald highlights the troubling safety record of the air cargo industry.


Since the year 2000, 69 cargo planes have had fatal crashes in the U.S. - an average of one a month - and 85 deaths have been reported. Ronnie Greene is a reporter for The Miami Herald and the author of the paper's series called, Deadly Express. He joins us now from Miami. Ronnie, 69 cargo crashes. Are there common threads in these accidents? What's actually causing these planes to go down?

Mr. RONNIE GREENE (Reporter, The Miami Herald): Yeah, there are some common threads in the accidents. I think maybe foremost among them is the oversight from the government. Small cargo planes get less attention than larger planes carrying passengers. And safety advocates and people within the industry feel that that is one of the big reasons that these planes continue to crash at a time when FAA officials say U.S. aviation overall is safer than ever.

NORRIS: One example, you found that cargo planes are allowed to fly when problems have been identified that would ground commercial jets. Why is that allowed to happen?

Mr. GREENE: There's actually several examples I could cite that go to some of the riskier nature of this industry. One of those is that cargo pilots for small companies can fly up to 40 percent more hours a year than pilots for passenger companies can. Beyond that, many small cargo planes do not have black boxes. FAA rules do not require black boxes on smaller planes. So what advocates will tell you is that if you don't have the black boxes, perhaps you're not solving some of these safety riddles that continue to plague this industry.

NORRIS: Does that explain why ultimately, these investigations determine that the cause of the accident was pilot error?

Mr. GREENE: That's one of the trends we found for sure, and that is, in eight of every 10 fatal crashes in the U.S. since 2000, the NTSB has cited as the primary cause an action or an inaction by the pilot in the cockpit. And our research raised some questions about that. For just one example, there's a plane called the Cessna 208B. We found that that plane has been involved in 10 fatal crashes in the U.S. since 2000, which is the most of any plane. We also found that the NTSB has raised significant concerns about this plane's handling, particularly involving icing situations. So we have that on one side.

On the other side, we found in all of the Cessna 208 crashes, they cited the pilot as the primary cause of the crash. So one wing of the government is raising safety questions about this particular plane as one example, whereas another wing of the same government is saying no, it's the pilot who was at fault.

NORRIS: In many of these crashes, the planes were piloted by a single pilot. Is that correct?

Mr. GREENE: Yes.

NORRIS: Is that part of the problem? There's no co-pilot?

Mr. GREENE: Yeah, that is one of the factors, that there's not a co-pilot to work with you. We had, really, a tragic example of that. There's a company out of Utah that has an extensive series of safety violations documented year after year after year. One of their pilots was telling friends and the family that he was getting burned out from the job and that he really needed some help. Last June, he was going up for a cargo flight from Colorado, and essentially was pleading for someone to fly with him, to go with him. He was not able to find a partner, and he ended up crashing 30 minutes later into a mountain in Colorado and died. So that's one tragic example of a pilot going up solo.

NORRIS: Where is the FAA in all of this, and what do they rely on? Fines? Can they actually ground a carrier? Do they ever do that?

Mr. GREENE: The FAA can issue fines and they do issue fines, but we actually asked them that exact question. And the FAA's answer to us is that grounding a carrier is the most severe action it will take, and that it will only take that action when it has quote/unquote "ironclad proof," because, the FAA says, we know we'll be challenged in court.

NORRIS: Could you make the argument, though, that this is a good use of resources, that the FAA is directing their money and their resources toward the greatest number of passengers?

Mr. GREENE: I don't think anyone disputes that the FAA needs to be as aggressive as it can in passenger planes. There's no question. But the flipside of that is that there are airline pilot groups and some operators who feel that there should be a quote/unquote "standard level of safety" saying hey, let's bring us up to the level of safety that you have for the larger carriers. In fact, I'd like to mention that there was a crash in Alabama a couple of years ago. And I interviewed the pilot's sister, and she felt that one of the things that needs to be changed is these small planes need to have black boxes. She said the worst thing that can happen to a family is to lose a loved one in one of these crashes and not know why. And this pilot's quote to me was improvements in aviation are measured in dollars and cents. How much is it going to cost? And so far, that type of improvement, mandating these black boxes, has gone nowhere on these small planes.

NORRIS: Ronnie Greene, thanks so much for talking to us.

Mr. GREENE: Thanks for having us. I appreciate it.

NORRIS: Ronnie Greene is a reporter for the Miami Herald and author of the series, Deadly Express, a series that's running in the paper this week that chronicles safety issues in the air cargo industry. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.