A federal law written to ensure older airplanes undergo rigorous inspection regimens fails to include small air cargo planes, a gaping loophole for an industry marked by aging aircraft and dead pilots.
The lapse, detailed in a new Department of Transportation Inspector General review, provides fresh evidence for critics who say the Federal Aviation Administration has for years neglected an industry that suffers nearly a fatal crash a month amid a risky mix of young pilots, flawed equipment and tight deadlines.
The safety divide is likely to come into focus Wednesday, when the House Subcommittee on Aviation gathers for a sweeping review of FAA oversight of aviation safety in what could lead to safeguards in the deadliest form of commercial aviation: air cargo.
A Miami Herald investigation in July detailed how lax FAA oversight contributes to safety breakdowns among the smaller cargo operators involved in most fatal crashes.
In nearly a quarter of deadly crashes, the newspaper found, mechanical problems were not fixed before cargo pilots took off. The planes that crashed were 26 years old on average - more than three times the age of typical airline passenger aircraft. Older planes are equipped with fewer modern safety features, and are sometimes vexed by deteriorating engines or breakdowns in crucial flight instruments.
Bart Crotty, a former FAA inspector, said The Miami Herald's series demonstrated that the air cargo industry "needs the fresh scrutiny."
Despite these hazards, safety gaps persist.
An FAA rule, for instance, is meant to keep unsafe aged planes - those 14 years and older - on the ground. The rule targets big planes with 30 or more seats, including jumbo cargo operators, and requires detailed inspections of areas prone to cracks and corrosion.
Missing from this safety net, however, are families of planes that carry the highest crash rates, including small cargo and air taxi operators. In fact, The Miami Herald found, 71 cargo planes have fatally crashed in the U.S. since 2000, killing 87, mostly single pilots. Many of the planes were small, late generation models.
"Vulnerabilities still remain in aging aircraft inspection requirements for certain passenger air carrier and cargo aircraft fleets," Acting Inspector General Todd J. Zinser wrote Sept. 7.
The IG identified more than 2,000 small cargo and passenger on-demand operators not covered. Also excluded: Small general aviation planes, and operators in one of the most dangerous states for flight, Alaska.
The FAA's Aging Airplane Safety Rule was issued in 2005, 14 years after U.S. Rep. James Oberstar, D-Minn., authored the Aging Airplane Safety Act of 1991.
"It's absurd that it has taken this long to do it," said Oberstar, the ranking Democrat on the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure, who will take part in Wednesday's hearing. "Who is doing the foot dragging?"
The congressman said he will press the FAA on why its inspection standards are different for smaller cargo operators than larger commercial fleets, betraying the FAA mandate for "One Level of Safety."
"I want to have them on record on the `One Level of Safety.' Do they really believe in this?" Oberstar said. "It's one and a half level of safety, it's not the same. (Smaller) cargo carriers, they should be subjected to no less rigorous maintenance requirements than the major airlines."
Other aviation issues will likely come under the microscope Wednesday in Washington, including runway safety, air traffic controller staffing and the safety record of the MU-2 turboprop plane.
Such hearings can be an important first step toward new laws that could instill aviation safeguards, such as a possible tightening of the aging aircraft rule.
The Inspector General report makes clear why the FAA has not included the smaller wings of aviation in the enhanced inspections: It costs money.
The FAA "determined that `it would be costly for operators to develop inspection programs' for those operators that were not covered under the rule," Inspector General Zinser wrote. "As a result, a significant number of aging aircraft are not covered under any aging aircraft program."
Researchers at Wichita State University's National Institute for Aviation Research believe smaller operators should be included.
Air cargo pilots "are operating at a higher stress level on a more frequent basis," said Dale Cope, director of the Aging Aircraft Research Laboratory at Wichita State's aviation institute. "That usage puts a lot of wear and tear on the airplane and over time you are going to start developing cracks in areas that are not normally looked at on an annual visual inspection."
Cope said some industry leaders have begun enhanced inspections on older planes, though are not required to.
Yet weaknesses in the aging law remain. The deadly crash of the Chalk's Ocean Airways Flight 101 seaplane off South Beach last December is a case study.
Two months before the crash killed 20 people, the FAA had completed an inspection that found no structural issues. The National Transportation Safety Board later found fatigue cracking evident on both wings.
"Because the inspections are only visual in nature, the inspections will not identify subsurface cracks or hidden corrosion," an Inspector General report said of Chalk's, which was covered under only part of the aging rule and did not undergo the more detailed inspection.
"The Chalk's Ocean Airways accident highlighted the importance of ensuring the structural integrity of older aircraft," Zinser concluded. While the FAA, Congress and aviation industry have made strides in ensuring safety of older planes, he said, real vulnerabilities remain.
An FAA spokeswoman did not respond to Miami Herald requests for comment on the new Inspector General review.
The aviation agency maintains that air cargo operations are safe, noting that fatalities dropped in 2005 when compared to 2000. Zeroing in on those years, the FAA said accidents for small cargo operators "have declined dramatically over the last six years."
Yet records show that the FAA is using selective information to make the case.
Industry death tolls were very high in 2000 and 2001, dipped in 2002 and 2003, then rose again in 2004 to the same level as 2000 before dipping again in 2005, The Miami Herald found. In 2004, the cargo and other on-demand companies' fatal accident rate was 65 times greater than that of larger carriers, NTSB records show - and was the highest it had been since 1996.
Through this August, there have already been more U.S. cargo deaths than all of 2005.
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