Should GA Be More Like the Airlines?

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.

  4 comments for “Should GA Be More Like the Airlines?

  1. July 7, 2012 at 1:00 pm

    Having read the speech by the NTSB’s Deborah Hershman, I don’t come to the conclusion that they want GA to function like the airlines.

    Hershman’s points are that GA accounts for the 51% of civil flight time, but 97% of the fatal accidents. That would seem to undercut your assertion that few people have any tolerance for risk. Apparently, a lot of GA pilots are taking plenty of risks, paying the ultimate price, and often taking the lives of others who did not assume such risk. Heck, I see plenty if people taking risks everyday while riding my bike to the airport most any day!

    GA has 40 times the accidents as part 135 and 121. If we wait for changes in GA safety culture to come from within it seems doubtful that much, if any, improvement will occur.

    You state that you support better equipment and more training, but you are against increased costs, which seems puzzling and contradictory.

    Lastly, you assert that pilots have a freedom to fly. Flying an aircraft is not an inalienable right, it is a privilege that is earned through education and testing.

    I’d hate to see aviation become more expensive, but the GA safety reputation is miserable and we have no one to blame but ourselves.

    • Ron
      July 7, 2012 at 1:31 pm

      It’s too simplistic to say that GA accounts for 51% of flight time but 97% of fatal accidents. Part 121/135 represent very specific kinds of highly structured and limited flying, whereas “GA” represents everything from airshow acts and experimental aviation to medevac and ultralights. It’s a wide variety of aviation.

      You can spin the statistics any number of ways. GA represents 90% of all aircraft, so it should represent 90% of the accidents. See how easy that is? If you want to look at statistics, look at the number of GA pilots, the number of GA airplanes at a typical airport, the avgas sales estimates, or the tally of operations at a GA airport.

      My commentary about a lack of risk tolerance was aimed at American society as a whole, not pilots. If the only goal is safety, then I can make things as safe as the airlines: just use the exact same rules for general aviation. My point is that the NTSB’s only mission is just that: safety. I don’t believe they necessarily consider the cost, whether in terms of time, money, or effort. Nor do they consider how the added regulation might affect an already failing part of our economy. And I’m not arguing that they should. But a realistic view of the GA world is of a shrinking entity. Ignoring that doesn’t seem like a smart idea.

      This whole debate reminds me of those who advocate spending trillions of dollars to stimulate the economy and therefore reduce the national budget deficit.

      I do support better equipment and training. In my experience as an instructor, those things are only effective when they are motivated by the pilot’s desire to be a better aviator, not by a regulatory requirement. The safe pilots got that way by virtue of their attitude toward safety. As for higher costs, who is in favor of higher costs for GA? Show me that person and I’ll show you someone very much out of touch with reality.

      Common sense goes a long way toward making flying safer. Mike Busch’s educational crusade about aircraft maintenance is one such example.

      You misread my assertion regarding our freedom to fly. What I said was that our Part 91 gives us tremendous freedom to fly. I did not state that everyone has the right to fly.

    • Ron
      July 7, 2012 at 1:33 pm

      The query about GA operating like the airlines was not prompted by Hershman’s speech but by the Jetwhine article which referenced it.

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