Expert: Safety record of cargo planes improved

8:56 PM, Aug 14, 2013   |    comments
Investigators examine the remains of a UPS cargo plane that crashed Aug. 14 in a grassy area outside an airport in Birmingham, Ala. and broke into pieces, killing the two-member crew.(Photo: AFP/Getty Images)
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By Larry Copeland, USA TODAY

Cargo planes such as the one that crashed this morning in Birmingham "have a somewhat higher accident rate than passenger aircraft," aviation consultant Hans Weber says.

"More recently, their accident rate has significantly improved because they retired some older airplanes, which were just more difficult to fly," Weber says.

He says the air cargo industry also has "invested considerable amounts of money in equipping their airplanes with improved navigation avionics, making it safer for them to land under adverse weather conditions, and into smaller airports."

"The majority of the accidents were smaller planes that had to fly into less well-equipped airports under adverse weather conditions," he says.

Another aviation consultant, George Hamlin of Fairfax, Va.-based Hamlin Transportation Consulting, says the safety records of the major package shippers, UPS and FedEx, are comparable to those of major passenger carriers American, Delta and United. "If you're comparing UPS and FedEx, there is ostensibly no difference, safety-wise," Hamlin says. "The accident rate tends to go up when you get down to (cargo carriers) operating in obscure parts of the world."

The pilot and co-pilot of a UPS cargo plane died after their Airbus A300 crashed as it was approaching Birmingham-Shuttlesworth International Airport. The cause of the crash is unknown.

The Birmingham crash was only the second fatal plane crash for UPS, which has operated its own fleet since 1981. The first occurred on Sept. 3, 2010, when a UPS Boeing 747-400 crashed near Dubai in the United Arab Emirates, killing both crewmembers. UPS has had four other aircraft incidents since 1985, according to the Aviation Safety Network.

Weber, president and owner of San Diego-based Tecop International, an aviation consultant company, says that the regulations governing cargo planes are "basically the same" as those that apply to passenger aircraft. "There are some differences," he says. For instance, the cabin environment systems on cargo planes don't have to operate at the same level as passenger aircraft, he mentioned.

"But as far as certification of the aircraft, pilot training, navigation, communications equipment - all of that is the same as for passenger aircraft."

The UPS crash is the latest in a series of plane accidents in recent weeks. On July 22, more than a dozen people were injured when a Southwest Airlines Boeing 737 jet skidded on its belly at New York's LaGuardia airport after hitting the runway nose first before breaking the front landing gear. On July 6, an Asiana Airlines Boeing 777 crashed while landing in San Francisco, killing three people and injuring more than 180.

Weber and Hamlin say the recent spate of crashes doesn't tell them anything about current airline safety.

"What it says, I think, is that there is still some finite probability for an accident, which will always be there, because nothing can be made 100% safe. It's impossible," Weber says. "Also, the San Francisco accident and the LaGuardia accident appear to have been due to pilot error."

"The cause of none of them is known," Hamlin says. "The first thing you look for is, did they happen for similar reasons. All three were in the landing mode, but by itself that doesn't tell us anything."

"This is a good time to take a good look. When you get a spate of incidents, it's time to sit down and make sure you're doing everything in your job to make sure there's not another one," Hamlin says. "The fact that we've had another one is probably a good time to review procedures and rules. Once we learn why they happened, that may point toward further changes in procedures and training."

The National Transportation Safety Board is still investigating the San Francisco and New York accidents, but the agency hasn't yet determined the cause of either. The agency is also investigating the UPS crash.

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