Freight Dogs

Air Line Pilot, September 2000, page 10
By Chris Dodd, Staff Writer

Okay, so they don’t have to deal with unruly passengers—unless you count the flopping tuna on its way from Palau to your favorite sushi bar, or some other shipment that refuses to stay put.

ALPA’s cargo crew members have other issues to deal with.

A member of the ground crew loads a DHL A300 at JFK.

In some measure, the bond that ALPA members who fly for the "other" side of the airline industry share with pilots from the union’s beginnings is stronger than that of other pilots. The hours and working conditions are often grim. The safety battles are ongoing. And—let’s be honest here—cargo crews work in relative obscurity compared with the sky gods (cargo pilots don’t call themselves "freight dogs" for nothing).

And, like the pilots of the ’30s, modern-day cargo crews find themselves at the controls of a transportation sector that’s driving a new economy.

As ALPA’s president, Capt. Duane Woerth, pointed out to a cargo symposium that FedEx pilots hosted last fall, ALPA’s first members were cargo pilots, developing the country’s infant airmail system.

Today’s cargo industry includes mail, plus scheduled and charter freight and express-delivery services.

Capt. Dan Brannan (DHL), a 16-year veteran of the cargo industry, notes that its carriers fall basically into two types—"the ones who’ll fly literally anything, including hazardous materials, and the time-sensitive carriers like DHL and others, whose business historically has been the overnight letter." But Capt. Brannan points out that changing technology—specifically, e-mail—has changed even the latter’s business and that companies like DHL are "reinventing" themselves to provide more heavy lift in a competitive industry.

What are these airlines lifting? "Whatever fits through the door," laughs Capt. Dan Wells (Polar Air Cargo). Barbie doll parts and $16 million mainframes to tie together cellular networks. Race cars and rare tigers. Machine parts and microchips, and every animal, vegetable, and mineral in between.

Forbes magazine last fall detailed the importance of these "flying warehouses" in the B2B (business to business) and B2C (business to consumer) world. Moving material to assembly points and finished products to the marketplace by air has revolutionized the way modern manufacturers and suppliers do business and the way all those fans of e-Bay and the dot.coms do their shopping. E-commerce may be taking off, but on delivery, it’s flying on an airplane, not a mouse and a modem.

Cargo operations can take any number of forms, among them transporting heavy freight airport-to-airport, freight forwarding (consolidating shipments for movement to the next destination), and express services, including time-sensitive delivery for the U.S. Postal Service. Some freight carriers handle a mix of passenger and cargo operations, which makes getting a handle on exactly how many ALPA members fly cargo exclusively somewhat difficult. And usually overlooked is the fact that a number of major carriers—principally United and Northwest—have significant cargo divisions that employ ALPA pilots.

Even on passenger flights, Capt. Woerth points out, "50 percent of the revenues may be in the airplane’s belly." Nearly half the cargo flown reportedly travels on passenger airplanes.

There’s gold in them thar holds, it would seem, and cargo operations are growing accordingly. What could be better than solid revenues and no complaints from passengers about lost luggage or bad food?

The air cargo industry, in fact, is growing from 200 to 300 percent faster than the passenger side. Boeing, which projects world cargo traffic tripling by 2017, for the first time this year will build more cargo versions of its B-747-400 than passenger versions.

Airbus used last year’s Farnborough Air Show to show off its A300-600ST Super Transporter "Beluga," the largest cargo airplane in existence.

The manufacturer has also said it will offer a freighter version of its A3XX "super jumbo" if enough potential customers show interest. If they don’t, market analysts might be surprised. The growth projected in the air cargo industry, specifically in Asia, will no doubt keep demand healthy.

Growing pains

What’s interesting in an examination of ALPA’s modern-day cargo crews is how they parallel the early ALPA pilots in another critical area: their struggle to secure adequate wages, fair work rules, and a safe working environment, starting in many cases from ground zero.

"The air cargo industry is basically going through the same type of growing pains that mainline passenger carriers did in the ’30s and ’40s," observes one MEC chairman. Part of that is no doubt due to the fact that many of the companies are relative youngsters—Atlas Air and Polar Air Cargo, for example, were founded in the early 1990s. And part may be due to the industry’s own growing pains as it copes with new technology and competitive pressure. DHL, at 30 the oldest of ALPA’s current cargo carriers, has evolved into a sophisticated global operation (see "DHL Airways," page 15), and its members, who joined ALPA in 1990, have a more mature contract, which reflects the strides they’ve made.

Not surprisingly, the managements of many of these companies, citing the need for "flexibility" to capitalize on new markets and new opportunities, often stretch employees thin.

And also not surprisingly, scheduling usually tops the list of complaints. Polar Air Cargo’s crew members, who joined ALPA in late 1996, fought hard in their first contract to remedy at-will extensions of schedules. "We’d leave on what was supposed to be a 10-day trip and be forced to stay out sometimes for as long as 35 days," says Capt. Dennis Brooks, Polar’s MEC chairman, who was fired by the company in a dispute over scheduling.

An ‘ad hoc’ industry

An Emery DC-8 leaves its heart—and whatever else is on the pallets—in San Francisco.

Part of the situation is related to the ad hoc nature of cargo flying. Wet-leasing, or as they’re more formally known, ACMI (aircraft, crew, maintenance, and insurance) leases, can make a cargo crew’s schedule hellishly unpredictable. For a crew to fly to Taipei one day, Johannesburg the next is not unusual.

"They turn you loose with a B-747 and tell you to go out and take care of business," says Capt. Greg Amussen, MEC chairman at Atlas Air. "Once they get you out on the other side of the world, they may say that flying you home is too expensive." Atlas’s crew members joined ALPA in April 1999.

The pressures of time-sensitive delivery push hard on flight crews. More than half of flying for Ryan International crews is for the U.S. Postal Service, estimates Capt. Bruce Trager, Ryan’s MEC chairman. Company managers—not pilots—face "huge performance bonuses and penalties" based on flights making schedules.

"They say our contract is in jeopardy if we drop below 96 percent on-time performance, that they’ll lose their bonuses if we drop below 98 percent," Capt. Trager says. "The time is down to their giving us so many seconds to open the door after the aircraft blocks in."

The Ryan and Emery pilots won a major victory in August over the question of how much they’ll be paid to haul the mail.

ALPA staff helped convince the Department of Labor that the crews operating the aircraft carrying express mail under the postal contracts should be paid the industry "prevailing wage" as required by the Services Contract Act. The U.S. Postal Service, the Department of Defense, the National Air Carriers Association, the Regional Airlines Association, and four individual airlines argued that the pilots were not eligible. The determination of eligibility means that the Emery and Ryan cargo crews who work the mail flights may realize a healthy boost in their paychecks. ALPA staff members are expected to participate in the Department of Labor’s Wage and Hour Division proceedings to establish what pay rates for the mail contract flying will be.

Fatigue is another factor for cargo crews, who jokingly refer to themselves as "members of the Order of Sleepless Knights." Back-side-of-the-clock flying was always one of their unique "perks," but more operators are extending schedules dayside to keep up with demand for cargo hauling.

"Management does not seem to be able to understand circadian rhythm and its effects," one officer laughs ruefully about his carrier’s scheduling.

Troy Englert, a member of ALPA’s Economic and Financial Analysis Department who has helped cargo crew members from DHL, Polar Air, Ryan International, and Tower Air prepare for contract negotiations, concurs: "Management just didn’t seem to understand that a pilot couldn’t fly during the day, sleep 12 hours, and then fly around the back side of the clock. The body doesn’t work like that…. The work rules have to ensure that pilots get adequate rest before flying."

In negotiating first contracts for those carriers, "ALPA insists, at a minimum, work rules to ensure a margin of safety," Englert says. "And hopefully, pilots will be able to improve upon work rules in subsequent contracts to ensure quality of life—not just being safe, but being able to have more time at home with the family, like other employees."

Polar Air Cargo, which signed a contract with its ALPA-represented crew members in December 1999, is still fighting the scheduling wars. The contract provides that crews can’t be scheduled for more than 16 hours on duty, but actual schedules often extend beyond that, observes one crew member.

Cargo crews at some carriers have also complained that rest facilities, particularly in developing nations, are sometimes inadequate, even primitive, and exposure to infectious diseases like tuberculosis and malaria has been reported at remote outstations.

Those cargo crews who operate under supplemental FARs under Part 121 find that many rest provisions fall through the cracks. ALPA’s hard-won reserve rest enforcement applies only to scheduled domestic operations, not to supplemental Part 121 operations or pilots who fly internationally.

"We have no required rest," says Ryan’s Capt. Trager. "When we’re on reserve, the company can make us stay ‘on’ twenty-four hours a day, six days a week." Deadheading at Ryan isn’t considered part of duty time, he added. "You could deadhead for eight hours and then be on duty for sixteen more."

Capt. James Fritzler, a DHL pilot who serves on ALPA’s Flight Time/Duty Time Committee, acknowledges that cargo groups that have not negotiated specific duty time limits and provisions for reserve rest (as DHL and Polar have) are suffering.

Meanwhile, Capt. Fitzler notes with some irony, "the aircraft dispatcher on the ground, whose biggest risk is falling off the chair, is limited by the FARs to ten hours on duty."

Telling the players

"Anyone familiar with the cargo side of the airline industry knows that negotiating contracts that address the myriad issues facing cargo crews is difficult," says Seth Rosen, director of the Association’s Representation Department. "From a representation perspective, this is a huge challenge and opportunity for ALPA."

Atlas B-747s fly under ACMI leases, often for international customers.

The goal of first-round contract negotiations at Atlas, Emery, and Ryan, he notes, "is to secure a legally enforceable contract, and then, like DHL, build from that. But establishing that foundation takes time." At press time, negotiators for the pilots and management of Emery had reached a tentative agreement.

Cargo crews’ efforts to gain contractual relief from onerous working conditions are often complicated by the complex business arrangements under which many fly. Outsourcing and subcontracting are commonplace, which often makes telling the players difficult without a scorecard.

Emery Worldwide Airlines, whose pilots joined ALPA in July 1997, is owned by CNF, Inc., a megacorporation handling transportation of freight by ground, sea, and air. Freight forwarder EWW (for Emery World Wide) is also under the CNF umbrella.

ALPA contract administrator Richard Domholt, who’s involved in negotiations for Emery Worldwide Airlines’ pilots, said those efforts are particularly challenging, especially when talks turn to outsourcing of flying.

"You have, in essence, a separate corporation that decides what freight is going on what aircraft, and whether that aircraft is owned by the company or owned by a subcontractor," Domholt notes. "That makes negotiating tough, because we don’t have the legal right to force EWW to bargain with us. We have to bargain with the airline, which may say, ‘We have no control over that decision; that’s a separate company.’"

Negotiations become even more sensitive when one of the contractors is another ALPA carrier.

Emery contracts out a portion of its flying (including some of its mail contracts) to Ryan International, whose flight crew members joined ALPA in August 1998. Both groups are currently negotiating their first ALPA contracts. "Bruce [Trager, Ryan’s MEC chairman] and I have spent a lot of time talking about this," said Capt. Tom Rachford, Emery’s MEC chairman, "about the need to work together, not against each other, to avoid being whipsawed. Keeping us small and divided is in management’s interest. If Bruce and I work together, we can succeed and protect our members’ interests."

Leading-edge liberalization

Like the passenger side of the airline industry, cargo carriers have often forged business alliances with other carriers to make them more competitive globally. What’s more, Capt. Woerth has pointed out, airline management has often used cargo operations as the "leading edge" in trying to liberalize carriers’ operating rules worldwide.

One of United’s four DC-10-30Fs sits on the ramp at Osaka.

The United States has been negotiating "seventh freedom" rights (that is, the right to pick up and drop off freight via operations that do not connect to the operator’s home country) for cargo in many of its open-skies agreements. (A hypothetical seventh-freedom scenario would have Lufthansa establishing a cargo hub in Los Angeles with operations between that city and Central and South America.)

In working to set up integrated worldwide delivery systems, carriers like DHL and non-ALPA carriers like FedEx and UPS have created overseas hubs and other structures unique to the cargo industry. And in doing so, they’ve sometimes run afoul of their unionized employees.

FedEx, in setting up its operations in Subic Bay in the Philippines, tested whether the Railway Labor Act applies to crews based outside of the United States, a situation that UPS has also challenged. ALPA is still working to promote legislation that will address the rights of flight crews based overseas.

Atlas pilots have filed a lawsuit challenging establishment of a new crew base this spring at Stansted, England. Run by Atlas Air Crew Services (AACS), an alter-ego subsidiary, the operation offered lower compensation (factoring in cost of living and taxes) and even longer work schedules, presenting a "disincentive" for U.S.-based Atlas crew members to apply, says Capt. Amussen of Atlas. "They were moving our jobs offshore—that’s the long and the short of it."

With ALPA’s assistance, and through efforts of ALPA’s first vice-president, Capt. Dennis Dolan, the pilots secured support from the International Federation of Air Line Pilots Associations and the British Air Line Pilots Association to ensure that these groups would not support any AACS training operations, facilities, or pilot recruiting.

One Level of Safety

ALPA has long pointed out the need to extend to cargo operations the same protections all but taken for granted on the passenger side (see "Making Freighters Safer," May 1995). As air traffic increases and more cargo carriers extend beyond back-side-of-the-clock operations, the need is even more pressing.

ALPA had lobbied for years to mandate TCAS on freighters, but not until this year’s FAA reauthorization did Congress finally direct that this safety feature-–essential on the passenger side—be mandated on cargo aircraft. The FAA is expected to introduce rulemaking to mandate TCAS for cargo carriers later this year, which means that several more years may elapse before all those venerable B–747s and DC-8s are retrofitted with the device.

The delay in necessary safety measures is disturbing to cargo crews, who know just how much the industry has changed. "John Q. Public sitting in his backyard doesn’t believe that that lawn dart up in the air is going to come down on his house," Capt. Rachford comments.

"The air cargo industry used to be smaller aircraft flying late at night," he adds. "Now they’re gigantic pieces of aluminum with swimming pools full of fuel, flying over populated areas and sharing airspace with passenger carriers."

Transport of dangerous goods is an occupational hazard, and ALPA pilot volunteers and staff have worked for years with representatives of government and industry to try to eliminate—or at least minimize—its risks. But unless crews are flying hazmat, they may not see a manifest detailing specifics of the load they’re flying. And sometimes risk doesn’t come packaged in labeled 50-gallon drums and pressurized cans.

An Atlas crew reported being dispatched to haul a crate of primates to Atlanta with the vague warning to "be careful of the monkeys." The crew was unprotected, but the airplane was met by workers from the Centers for Disease Control wearing full bio-hazard gear. The animals were to be tested as bearers of the deadly ebola virus.

Looking at the loaders

Airplane types have to meet the same certification and safety standards on both sides of the airline industry, and both passenger and cargo flight crews have to meet the same training standards. But where passenger and cargo operations part company in a critical area, ALPA’s safety experts point out, is in the amount of oversight over what’s happening aft of the flight deck. No regulation currently requires training and certification of cargo loaders. Because loading is most often done overnight, usually by contractors, how adequately the job is done may get little review.

The result may be an airplane that’s grossly overweight, that’s loaded out of the safe center-of-gravity range, or that finds its load has shifted in flight because of improper or faulty tie-down.

In fact, improper loading was determined to be the probable cause of the crash of an airplane belonging to Fine Air (not an ALPA carrier) on takeoff from Miami International Airport in August 1997. The load was innocuous enough: 45 tons of blue denim bound for a jeans factory in the Dominican Republic. The inexperienced loaders apparently rearranged pallets to make the material fit in the cargo hold, but failed to note the new configuration on their loading report. The crew therefore set the DC-8-61’s stabilizer trim based on faulty information.

This DHL cap attests to the sense of humor of the "freight dogs."

On takeoff, the skewed center of gravity caused the airplane’s nose to pitch up sharply and the airplane to stall. The crew recovered briefly, but the airplane stalled again and crashed tail-first into the street below, killing the three-member crew and a security guard on board, as well as a passing motorist.

The NTSB found that the CG was "near or even aft" of the aft CG limit and that the "mistrim of the airplane (based on the incorrectly loaded cargo) presented…a situation that …required exceptional skills and reactions."

Following the Fine Air investigation, the FAA said that it was evaluating the federal regulations covering airline certificate holders to determine if the training programs required for "other operations personnnel" can be interpreted to apply to cargo handlers. The agency, if it determines it has authority, will issue an advisory circular to provide instructions on suggested curriculum topics to include weight and balance, cargo handling, cargo restraint, and the hazards of incorrect loading.

Flight crew members take care to inspect freight to catch potential safety problems as far as they are able, says Emery’s Capt. Rachford. They look to see "where freight is put onto the airplane, if it’s tied down to the pallet right, if it’s sitting next to something that might be combustible…. You’ve got to make sure everything is where it’s supposed to be, especially on an airplane as long as a DC-8…. Of course, not knowing who packed it makes the inspecting more difficult."

Flight crews who observe anything that’s obviously mispacked, leaking, or secured improperly can reject the shipment-–which can make for costly delays or can push the FARs’ legal limits on a flight crew’s duty day.

The crash this February of an Emery DC-8 whose flight crew reported a balance problem with that aircraft shortly after takeoff, has led safety activists to urge the NTSB to expand its inquiry on that accident later this fall to a wider examination of safety issues throughout the cargo industry.

For ALPA’s cargo crew members, it couldn’t come soon enough.

"We’ve got to make sure that One Level of Safety," Emery’s Capt. Rachford says, "is really one level of safety for all."