© 2024 Milwaukee Public Media is a service of UW-Milwaukee's College of Letters & Science
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Why Do Cargo Planes Have Spottier Safety Records?


This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Robert Siegel.


And I'm Audie Cornish. The investigation continues into the cause of a UPS cargo plane crash earlier this week in Birmingham, Alabama, a crash that killed two pilots. Yesterday, an official with the National Transportation Safety Board said there was no evidence of a pre-impact fire or engine failure.

Wednesday's accident was only the second fatal crash of a cargo plane in 32 years for UPS, but the story is different for cargo planes generally. Bloomberg News reported this week that in the last decade, there were eight times as many fatal accidents with cargo planes as with passenger planes. Joining me to talk about what might account for that difference is one of the reporters who wrote the article. Alan Levin, welcome to the program.

ALAN LEVIN: Thank you.

CORNISH: So first, give us some context. What's the, like, relative number of flights in the air that at any given time are cargo versus passenger?

LEVIN: Cargo has about 1/10 as many flights as the airline industry. That's a little misleading because they tend to take longer flights. But as a general rule, it's a 10-to-1 ratio.

CORNISH: And we talked about that number, eight times as many fatal accidents with cargo planes as with passenger planes. Give us more context there. What kind of trips? What kind of flights? What kind of accidents are these?

LEVIN: There's a number of ways to slice the data, but any way you look at it, cargo is having more accidents, at least as far as the rate of accidents per flight. In the past five years, there have been four U.S. registered large aircraft cargo fatal accidents compared to one fatal accident on passenger flights. And when you consider that there's roughly 10 times as many passenger flights, it's quite a large difference.

CORNISH: Now, is it known what factors essentially put the cargo flights at higher risk?

LEVIN: There's no black and white reason for this, but there are several factors that experts and accident reports point to. One, cargo flights are going to operate into more dangerous regions, airports that aren't as modernized as, say, a Chicago O'Hare or something like that. The other issue is that the regulations for cargo are different than for passenger.

For example, just a year and a half ago, after decades of struggle, the U.S. put in place new rules to prevent fatigue in pilots, but they exempted the cargo pilots. The reason for this is, basically, every time the federal government creates a new rule, they have to justify it on a cost-benefit analysis. And the way you figure out the costs of an accident is by the number of deaths that are projected, and because a cargo airline carries very few people, usually just the two pilots, the deaths expected from an accident are much lower. And therefore, it's been very difficult for the government to justify new safety rules like this.

CORNISH: Now, we don't know in the Birmingham case if any of these issues apply, but do these crashes basically revive these conversations and revive these concerns?

LEVIN: Absolutely, on a couple of fronts. One of the issues that has caused a higher number of accidents on cargo flights as compared to passenger is the category known as landing and approach accidents and also hitting a hillside when you're coming in low to the ground. And we don't know yet what happened here, but both of those things appear to be in play.

And I also think, going forward, this plane in Birmingham was landing before dawn. It's the time when all humans are most fatigued, and I'm sure that the NTSB is going to pay very close attention to whether those pilots suffered any type of fatigue that may have hindered their abilities in the cockpit.

CORNISH: Alan Levin, reporter for Bloomberg News. He covers aviation safety and the FAA. Thank you for coming in to talk with us.

LEVIN: Well, thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.