Should GA Be More Like the Airlines?

Posted by in Aviation, Safety

When it comes to regulation, training, currency, and experience requirements, should Part 91 general aviation become more like the airlines in order to achieve a better safety record? That question was prompted by Scott Spangler’s article, Safety May Be the Death of General Aviation.

Upon reading the title, I figured it was just a provocative title. Alas, he was responding to a speech given by the NTSB Chairman, who noted that the organization recently lost one of it’s own in a general aviation accident. That crash, a mid-air collision, is an interesting story all on it’s own. The pilots of both airplanes were federal employees (one at the FAA and the other at the NTSB), so the United States government has recused itself from the accident investigation and turned it over to the Canadian Transportation Safety Board.

So the question remains, should GA be more like the airlines? If you’re the NTSB, the answer is probably yes. Their mission is to investigate accidents and promote safety recommendations, not worry about what the financial or regulatory burden will do to the industry. I, on the other hand, would argue against such a change.

As I’ve previously noted, modern society has little tolerance for risk anymore. Whether it’s driving, walking, or flying, the only thing acceptable is 100% safety. Of course, we cannot achieve that unless we stay on the ground. Sadly, that’s becoming the norm for too many of us due to the financial constraints of the “new economy”. There are other ways to kill general aviation, however, and the NTSB seems focused on one of them with the continual push to mandate new regulations, equipment, training, and oversight. It’s a pity the NTSB is focused solely on safety without paying heed to what that safety will cost. The price isn’t always measured in dollars.

GA has a higher accident rate that the airlines for many reasons, but the primary one is that GA pilots have the freedom to do many things that the airline guys do not. And I hope that never changes. To paraphrase Dick Rutan, where would we be without those who were willing to risk life and limb using their freedom to do these things? We’d be safe and sound, on the ground, still headed west as we look out over the rump of oxen from our covered wagons.

Whether it’s cruising down the coast at 500′ enjoying the view, taking an aerobatic flight, flying formation, flight testing an experimental airplane, or landing on a sandbar, beach, grass strip, or back-country field, it’s important that private individuals not find themselves restricted to the ways and means of Part 121 operations. We do the stuff that make flying fun! Doing it “like the airlines” can only drive up the price and suck out the fun of aviation. Part of that cost is in increased risk.

Richard Collins stated this quite elegantly last year:

Lumping general aviation safety together is an accepted practice but it is not realistic. The activities are too diverse and need to be considered separately. There is instructional flying, recreational flying, agricultural flying, private air transportation flying and professional flying. The airplanes range from ultralights to intercontinental jets.

Even in the same area, different airplanes have varying accident rates. The only safety concern that spans everything is crashing but the frequency of and reasons for the crashing vary widely according to the type flying and even the type aircraft flown.

In each area, the safety record we get is a product of the rules, the pilots involved, the airplanes, and the environment in which the pilots fly those airplanes. To make any change in the record, one or all those elements would have to be modified.

One of the beauties of our Part 91 is that the pilot gets the freedom to choose how far he wants to go in that regard. If you want to file IFR everywhere and only fly with multiple turbine engines in day VMC, fine. That’s your choice. For others, flying in the mountain canyons in a single engine piston and landing on a short one-way strip on the side of a steep hill is well within their risk tolerance.

I’m certainly not opposed to better equipment, more training, or higher standards. Those things are all important, and I advocate for them constantly. But they will only be effective when they come from within rather than being imposed from a bureaucracy which already demands so much.