Rules less stringent for cargo industry

FAA Principal Maintenance Inspector Frank Lipinski from the Orlando Flight Standards District Office inspects one of the two engines of the Miami Air Lease, Inc. at Vero Beach Municipal Airport.

Detail of some of the damage surrounding one of the two radial engines of the Miami Air Lease, Inc. Convair 440 aircraft that was forced to make an emergency landing.

WASHINGTON -- Cargo pilots fly more hours with less rest than their colleagues navigating passenger airplanes. Many take to the air without the black box devices that help solve airplane crashes, a gaping safety loophole.

Aviation experts say the stark differences are among the reasons smaller cargo planes continue to crash while passenger flight boasts its safest period ever.

Small cargo companies fly under "Part 135'' of Federal Aviation Administration regulations, rules that also govern air taxi and emergency medical operators. Passenger and large cargo planes fly under rules for Part 121 carriers.

More than 90 percent of fatal U.S. cargo crashes since 2000 involve the under-the-radar Part 135 operators, whose crash rate is well above the Part 121 carriers.

Agency officials say nine of every 10 members of the traveling public are carried on passenger jets.

"You have to prioritize," said David E. Cann, manager of the FAA's Flight Standards Aircraft Maintenance Division. "We have to prioritize risk."

"[Part] 121 is the highest standard we hold our air carriers to," said Thomas Toula, Manager of the FAA's Flight Standards Air Transportation Division. "That is not to imply that 135 is unsafe. We've never said -- and to this day don't believe -- 135 is unsafe."

Beyond the differing safety rules, experts interviewed by The Miami Herald, including government regulators and cargo pilots, say the FAA's inspection process for Part 135 operators is not nearly as intensive as for Part 121.

The inspection programs are "a whole different world," said Tom Haueter, deputy director of the National Transportation Safety Board's Office of Aviation Safety. ''You're not getting the level of surveillance you get on 121."

Cargo operators have inspection and maintenance programs that can have hourly or calendar inspection intervals, depending on the size and manufacturer of the aircraft, the FAA said. But the quality of those inspections, and the FAA oversight, differ company to company.

For large 121 carriers, the FAA assigns full-time principal air safety inspectors for maintenance, avionics and flight operations, along with assistants, said former FAA inspector Bart Crotty.

| Reporting by Ronnie Greene | Photography by Candace Barbot | Audio Editing by Rhonda Victor Sibilia | Online Production by Stephanie Rosenblatt | (c) Miami Herald July 9, 2006 |