AIN Blog: Cargo Pilots Have Been Down This Road Before

 - February 5, 2012, 5:58 PM
US Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit
E. Barrett Prettyman courthouse in Washington, D.C., houses the US Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit. (Photo: Bill Carey)

Last week, I had the opportunity to meet with leaders of the Independent Pilots Association (IPA) over coffee at the Mayflower hotel in downtown Washington. Based in Louisville, Ky., site of the UPS Worldport international air hub, the IPA represents 2,650 pilots who fly freight for Big Brown. The delegation was visiting the nation’s capital to inform lawmakers about the FAA’s decision to exempt all-cargo airlines from its new flightcrew member duty and rest requirements “because their compliance costs significantly exceed the quantified societal benefits.” The IPA wants the so-called cargo “carveout” removed from the FAA rule, which it is challenging in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit.

Capt. Robert Travis, IPA president, contends “one level of safety” was the intent of the Airline Safety and FAA Extension Act of 2010, which introduced new safety provisions in the wake of the crash of Colgan Air Flight 3407. He argued that cargo pilots fly the same aircraft in the same airspace as their passenger-carrying brethren, and thus are subject to the same fatigue. First officer Lauri Esposito, who served on the aviation rulemaking committee that helped develop the “science-based” duty rule, suggested cargo pilots might be even more prone to fatigue. “Operating on the back side of the clock, across multiple times zones, is exclusively what we do,” she said.

But cargo pilots have been down this road before, arrayed against the greater industry over safety and working conditions. While the traffic collision avoidance system (Tcas) has been mandated for passenger-carrying aircraft since the early 1990s, it wasn’t until 2003 that Tcas was required for cargo aircraft at the urging of pilot unions. “We’ve already experienced the tragic effects of what this two-tiered cargo cutout can do,” said Travis, citing the midairs and near misses that preceded the requirement. “It took blood and tragedy to get us carved back into the [Tcas] rule.”

Pilots sided with the FAA in its interpretation of the “Whitlow Letter,” issued in November 2000 by FAA Deputy Chief Counsel James Whitlow, enforcing a 16-hour maximum duty day. The Air Transport Association, now Airlines for America, and the Regional Airline Association challenged the interpretation in court.

Now the IPA is challenging the FAA in its petition for review of the duty rule in federal appeals court. Other unions representing cargo pilots—the Airline Professionals Association-Teamsters Local 1224 and FedEx Master Executive Council of the Air Line Pilots Association (ALPA)—expressed outrage over the cargo carveout, but hadn’t joined the legal case at this writing. During a February 2 briefing in Washington, Capt. Lee Moak, ALPA president, said eliminating the carveout is a top association priority for 2012. He said ALPA is pursuing a two-pronged strategy: supporting Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood in encouraging cargo carriers to voluntarily opt in to the FAA rule and working through Congress to introduce a new bill eliminating the carveout.

The day we spoke, the IPA delegation planned to meet with Kentucky’s Republican senators Mitch McConnell and Rand Paul, neither one a champion of labor unions, to press their case for including cargo carriers in the duty rule. On the legal front, William Trent, IPA general counsel, said the association wants the appeals court to remand the duty rule back to the FAA with instructions to reevaluate why cargo carriers were excluded. The court also could reject the petition. Trent expects the process will take 12 to 18 months.

“We’re not opposing the rule,” said Travis. “We’re just asking for inclusion.”