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2 Investigators: Cargo Pilots Say Disaster Imminent Without Stricter Controls On Fatigue

(CBS) -- Cargo pilots are calling for federal agencies to help prevent accidents that might be caused by pilot fatigue.

They say they need the same protections limiting the hours they fly that currently apply to passenger pilots.

2 Investigator Pam Zekman reports.

The cargo pilots have been waging the battle in court, in Congress and with the Federal Aviation Administration.

It all started with a deadly plane crash in 2009. Fifty people were killed after a passenger plane crashed into a house near Buffalo, N.Y.

The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) said the crash was caused partly by pilot fatigue. In the aftermath, Congress mandated that the FAA address, among other things, the fatigue issue.

Last year, the FAA did approve new regulations that limited pilot shifts to eight to nine hours and required 10 hours of rest between them. But, the regulations applied only to passenger pilots. Cargo pilots were left out, meaning they could still work up to 16 hours.

Capt. Robert Travis, president of the Independent Pilots Association, which represents more than 2,600 UPS employees, said that creates a dangerous double standard.

"That is a recipe for disaster," he says.

In 2013, a UPS cargo plane flying to Birmingham, Ala. crashed short of the runway, killing the two pilots. A transcript of their cockpit conversation reveals they were talking about fatigue before the crash.

"When my alarm went off, I mean, I'm thinking, 'I'm so tired,'" the first officer said.

"I know," the captain responded.

The NTSB ruled fatigue contributed to the accident, not because of excessive hours for the crew but because they mismanaged their time off.

A survey of UPS pilots done by the Independent Pilots Association found 96 percent of those who responded said they've felt fatigued while on duty. Ninety-three percent said it's not uncommon to fly with another crew member who exhibits signs of fatigue.

"Pilots have a shared responsibility to show up at work ready to fly, and if they're not ready to fly, they're fatigued, they have an obligation to report that," says Jean Medina, spokeswoman for Airlines for America, which represents both passenger and cargo airlines.

As for why the limits are not the same for passenger and cargo pilots, the latter fly shorter hours, Medina said. "A passenger carrier pilot on average will fly on average 55 hours a month. A cargo pilots will fly about 30 hours a month."

The cargo pilots association points out that most of their flights are at night.

"The most challenging environment to fly in is flying night cargo on the back side of the clock," Travis says.

Bottom line, he says: "It's not a matter of if a tragedy will happen. It's a matter of when it will happen."

The Airline Association says safety is always their highest priority and the FAA decision was appropriate. But the pilots association is fighting it in court.

A UPS spokesman says the company's contract limits pilot shifts to no more than 11 hours, which is less than the 16 hours the regulations allow. And he blames the current airing of this controversy on the fact that new contract negotiations are underway.

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