Aviation Safety:

Better Data and Targeted FAA Efforts Needed to Identify and Address Safety Issues of Small Air Cargo Carriers

GAO-09-614: Published: Jun 24, 2009. Publicly Released: Jun 24, 2009.

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The air cargo industry contributed over $37 billion to the U.S. economy in 2008 and provides government, businesses, and individuals with quick delivery of goods. Although part of an aviation system with an extraordinary safety record, there have been over 400 air cargo accidents and over 900 incidents since 1997, raising concerns about cargo safety. GAO's congressionally requested study addresses (1) recent trends in air cargo safety, (2) factors that have contributed to air cargo accidents, (3) federal government and industry efforts to improve air cargo safety and experts' views on the effectiveness of these efforts, and (4) experts' views on further improving air cargo safety. To perform the study, GAO analyzed agency data, surveyed a panel of experts, reviewed industry and government documents, and interviewed industry and government officials. GAO also conducted site visits to Alaska, Ohio, and Texas.

From 1997 through 2008, 443 accidents involving cargo-only carriers occurred, including 93 fatal accidents. Total accidents declined 63 percent from a high of 62 in 1997 to 23 in 2008. Small cargo carriers were involved in the vast majority of the accidents--79 percent of all accidents and 96 percent of fatal accidents. Although accident rates for large cargo carriers fluctuated during this period, they were comparable to accident rates for large passenger carriers in 2007. GAO could not calculate accident rates based on operations or miles traveled for small carriers because the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) does not collect the necessary data. Although several factors contributed to these air cargo accidents, our review of National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) data found that pilot performance was identified as a probable cause for about 80 percent of fatal and about 53 percent of non-fatal cargo accidents. Furthermore, GAO's analysis of NTSB reports for the 93 fatal accidents, using an FAA flight-risk checklist, identified three or more risk factors in 63 of the accidents. Risk factors included low pilot experience, winter weather, and nighttime operations. Alaska's challenging operating conditions and remotely located populations who rely on air cargo are also a contributing factor. Many federal efforts to improve air cargo safety focus on large carriers. Air cargo experts that GAO surveyed ranked FAA's voluntary disclosure programs--in which participating carriers voluntarily disclose safety events to FAA--as the most effective effort to improve air cargo, but two of the three main voluntary disclosure programs are used typically by large carriers. Several industry initiatives, however, focus on carriers with smaller aircraft, such as the Medallion Foundation, which has improved small aircraft safety in Alaska through training and safety audits. The two actions experts cited most often to further improve air cargo safety were installing better technology on cargo aircraft to provide additional tools to pilots and collecting data to track small cargo carrier operations. Using flight risk checklists can also help pilots assess the accumulated risk factors associated with some cargo flights.

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Open

    Comments: The agency agrees with GAO's recommendation and is taking action to redesign its annual survey to collect the recommended information. A new contractor was identified to administer the survey and the contract was awarded in the Spring 2013. FAA plans to work with experts to determine how best to create a separate category in the survey for all part 135 cargo operators.

    Recommendation: To help FAA improve the data on and the safety of air cargo operations, the Secretary of Transportation should direct the FAA Administrator to gather comprehensive and accurate data on all part 135 cargo operations to gain a better understanding of air cargo accident rates and better target safety initiatives. This can be done by separating out cargo activity in FAA's annual survey of aircraft owners or by requiring all part 135 cargo carriers to report operational data as part 121 carriers currently do.

    Agency Affected: Department of Transportation

  2. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In 2009, GAO found that experts consider effective efforts to improve air cargo safety included the Federal Aviation Administration's (FAA) voluntary disclosure programs, in which participating carriers voluntarily disclose safety events to FAA, and use of safety management systems (SMS) by cargo carriers. SMS is a proactive, risk-based approach to addressing potential hazards by categorizing the risk level and tracking appropriate mitigating actions to reduce the risk to an acceptable level. However, GAO found that two of FAA's three main voluntary disclosure programs were used typically by large carriers and not by small cargo carriers. Further, FAA's SMS guidance was geared toward large carriers with safety departments and was less useful for smaller carriers that might have only a few employees. Therefore, GAO recommended that FAA promote the increased use of safety programs by small cargo carriers that use the principles underpinning SMS and voluntary self-disclosure programs. To address GAO's recommendation, in February 2011, FAA produced promotional and tutorial material for SMS implementation for small air carriers in the form of voice-augmented PowerPoint CD's and has distributed them widely. FAA has also sponsored annual Safety Management System Focus Group conferences to share information about SMS among large and small carriers. The most recent conference was held in June 2013 and included both large and small carriers. Additionally, FAA publishes a monthly SMS newsletter. The July 2013 newsletter provided information about SMS and voluntary disclosure programs for large and small carriers. Taking these actions will improve air cargo safety because (1) voluntary disclosure programs generate safety information that FAA does not identify through other means and can help to identify emerging safety risks and (2) SMSs are good for institutionalizing safety improvements and taking proactive steps to reduce the number of accidents.

    Recommendation: To help FAA improve the data on and the safety of air cargo operations, the Secretary of Transportation should direct the FAA Administrator to promote the increased use of safety programs by small (feeder and ad hoc) cargo carriers that use the principles underpinning SMS and voluntary self-disclosure programs.

    Agency Affected: Department of Transportation

  3. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In 2009, GAO found that while the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has increasingly focused on potential accident precursors that would reduce the risk of accidents before one occurs, the agency does not systematically track incidents in a way that would allow empirical analysis, even though incidents are widely viewed as accident precursors. However, the agency is moving toward using data to better identify precursors to accidents, but until it does so, it may be mission opportunities to make air cargo operations and aviation, in general, safer. Therefore, GAO recommended that FAA evaluate the likelihood that cargo incidents could be precursors to accidents and, if FAA determines they are, create a process for capturing incidents that would allow in-depth analysis of incidents to identify accident precursors related to specific carriers, locations, operations, and equipment. To address the recommendation, FAA uses incident data to analyze emerging risks through the Commercial Aviation Safety Team (CAST) process. CAST has developed six safety enhancements to reduce the risk of air cargo operations. As of 2013, four of the enhancements are complete. CAST also works with FAA's Flight Standards Service to monitor cargo incidents and accidents. As of 2013, their review of cargo incidents has not revealed new or emerging risks. By using incident data to better identify precursors to accidents, FAA is gaining opportunities to make air cargo operations and aviation, in general, safer.

    Recommendation: To help FAA improve the data on and the safety of air cargo operations, the Secretary of Transportation should direct the FAA Administrator to evaluate the likelihood that cargo incidents could be precursors to accidents and, if FAA determines they are, create a process for capturing incidents that would allow in-depth analysis of incidents to identify accident precursors related to specific carriers, locations, operations, and equipment.

    Agency Affected: Department of Transportation

  4. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In 2009, GAO found that over half of the fatal air cargo accidents since 1997 had multiple risk factors. However, preflight risk assessment checklists are not required to be used within the cargo industry. A risk assessment checklist is a tool that pilots or carriers can use prior to a flight to assess accumulated risk factors and determine if the flight should go forward. This tool assigns values to various risk elements, such as single pilot operations, night flights, and flights into areas without accurate weather reports. Despite the benefits of these checklists, experts pointed out that all of the flight risk checklists currently available were designed for passenger operations and that cargo carriers would have to tailor the tools to their needs--potentially a critical obstacle to implementation. Moreover, cost was a concern for carriers, and poor economic conditions throughout the air cargo sector may have meant that few funds would be available in the near term for new safety initiatives. Therefore, GAO recommended that FAA create incentives for cargo carriers to use flight risk assessment checklists in their daily operations, including tailoring a sample flight risk assessment checklist for part 135 cargo carriers. To create these incentives, FAA has since worked with the Regional Air Cargo Carriers Association (RACCA) to produce tailored risk management tools for small air cargo operators. These tailored tools include a preflight checklist for risk assessment and management that was completed and made available on the RACCA website in 2011. The concept of assessing and recognizing accumulated risk through flight risk assessment presents a low-cost opportunity for identifying and reducing the risk associated with some cargo flights that might otherwise go unnoticed.

    Recommendation: To help FAA improve the data on and the safety of air cargo operations, the Secretary of Transportation should direct the FAA Administrator to create incentives for cargo carriers to use flight risk assessment checklists in their daily operations, including tailoring a sample flight risk assessment checklist for part 135 cargo carriers.

    Agency Affected: Department of Transportation

 

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