The airline mentality

October 1, 1997

"Why can't a woman be more like a man?" Henry Higgins, the famous linguistics professor in the musical My Fair Lady, lamented that women were indeed quite different from men. Not much got by the observant Mr. Higgins. In a similar vein it seems that the public, the media, and the regulators frequently ask an equally absurd question: "Why can't general aviation be more like the airlines?"

The airline mentality is pervasive in our society, so it's natural to compare it to GA, particularly in safety terms. Put simply, the airlines fly a small number of big airplanes to only a few places at relatively high expense. GA flies a lot of small aircraft to a great many places at relatively low expense. We both fly airplanes in some of the same airspace, and that's where many analysts superficially leave it. But the answer to why GA can't be like the airlines is "because they are fundamentally different."

Starting with the obvious, large aircraft certified under FAR Part 25 have certain redundancies and required performance capabilities that are not required for light aircraft certified under Part 23 or the old CAR 3, as most of the fleet is. For example, an engine failure on takeoff in a light piston twin does not guarantee the pilot any climb performance — none. All it offers is the opportunity to make a decision. In Part 25 aircraft, which includes some business jets, there is a required level of performance that gives the pilot something to work with.

For an eye-opening demonstration on this little difference, observe a simulator session of both types. With the twin, frequently the only sane option following a failure at the most critical point is to stick it back in the dirt gently — under control. With a jet, the rules say that there is either enough runway to develop energy to fly or enough runway left to stop if an engine fails at the most critical point. That's called balanced field length. While there are only a few engine failure accidents in light twins during the course of a year, some will ask, "Why can't a light airplane climb like a jet?" The answer is that it needs more power and that raises the cost of acquisition and operation.

Altitude can make a huge difference on a trip in either thunderstorm or icing seasons. The big guys frequently top most of it, while we slug through the weather — and when someone makes a blunder, this question is posed: "Why can't a light airplane fly over the top?" Again, more power is needed, and pressurization is now added to the requirements.

About the only area where GA has required parity with Part 25 aircraft is in those light aircraft that are certificated for flight in icing conditions. The FAA requires an all-or-nothing approach to icing capability, which is interesting because nowhere else in the regs is that level of rigor required. Over the last decade, GA lost an average of 20 aircraft a year to structural ice. Most of those were not approved for in-flight icing conditions. Why can't light aircraft cope better with ice? Cost and availability of power to run the systems seem to keep cropping up.

Induction icing, in which the air intake to the engine or the carburetor ices up, claims another 28 or so aircraft every year, but this problem is nearly unheard of in the airline community. Airlines stopped using carburetors in the 1950s. Why do light aircraft suffer from induction/carburetor icing? The industry could produce fuel-injected engines on small airplanes, and Cessna has done just that with its new singles. There are cost and certification factors (cost again), so the question is whether it's worth it.

What are the differences between airline airports and GA airports? Sometimes nothing and sometimes everything. GA can and does go to every airline airport in the country. There are only about 700, leaving the remaining 12,000 or so as the exclusive domain of light aircraft. There are a significant number of accidents where the airport was inadequate for the airplane's needs. Insufficient runway or no instrument approach is seldom a factor in airline accident records. The airline safety record shows many more problems with nonprecision approaches, which are the standard at most GA airports — so the risks are higher.

Airline pilots must be operationally checked at every airport into which they fly, and balanced field length is required for all operations. Most airline airports have proper lighting; VASI; ILS or nonprecision approaches; a relatively wide, smooth runway with unobstructed approaches; crosswind runways; and decent restrooms. So why do light aircraft sometimes crash at an unsuitable airport? Because if we used only the air carrier airports, most of the utility of GA would be lost; this, however, is where the pilot needs to know the limitations of self and aircraft.

Another factor that has not been addressed statistically is the exposure to takeoffs and landings, which are the most hazardous phases of flight. GA makes proportionately many more takeoffs and landings per hour than most airlines, and it is difficult, if not impossible, to measure that ratio. The more arrivals and departures, the greater the odds of an unscheduled impact. This is tough to measure, but if crashes per departure were figured, GA's record would improve significantly. That is not to say that it couldn't be much better.

GA accidents most commonly are caused by inexperience or poor judgment on the pilot's part. Airline crews are also occasionally guilty of poor judgment, but their record is far superior to that of GA pilots, and there are some good reasons for that.

There are systemic and process differences that make airline pilot selection significantly more rigorous than that of GA. Start with experience. While old-timers do occasionally make mistakes, many GA accidents occur with pilots less-seasoned — either in total time or time in type. Most of the time we escape unscathed. Not all of the links are formed in the accident chain, but it's close enough that the transgressor gets a look over the edge and says, "I'll never do that again!" However, not everyone is as lucky.

In GA, everyone starts as a neophyte, while in the airlines the command slot does not become yours until after many hours in the trenches, in the right seat, watching and learning. This experience is invaluable because there is more to learn about flying than the best books, videos, CD-ROMs, or schools can ever convey. The mentoring process from an experienced aviator is invaluable. With the exception of military pilots, everybody passes through the GA training process — which will also skew the numbers because low time and training leads to more accident potential than high-time pilots flying cross-country.

While we're on the topic of crew, there are indications that two heads are better than one. This is statistically difficult to prove because there are so many variables, but my observation is that the workload drops significantly when there are four eyes, four hands, and two brains.

The airlines have a well-defined system of selecting pilots. Their process is objective and subjective, prejudiced in some cases, but far more demanding than that of GA. Most pilot applicants will not make the cut. By design, however, GA is open to all humankind who are able to pass the tests, and that is a mixed blessing. As in all endeavors available to the public, we have some who don't belong — but that is true in driving automobiles, operating boats, or practicing financial management. In this country we are allowed the freedom to do stupid things as long as we don't involve others. Despite the inefficiency and the occasional calamity, this seems like a good balance. But it does put some pressure on the certification system to keep the standards reasonably high, and there will always be loopholes despite the best intentions.

Rigorous and periodic structured training does make a difference in the safety record. The GA requirement is a flight review every two years, but these evaluations are sometimes conducted in uneven fashion. A sharp instructor with an organized plan can do a fine job of ferreting out weak spots and addressing them, while a more casual approach may give a pilot a false sense of overconfidence. Some pilots think that they are beating the system by getting a quickie check or that they really don't need the training. The statistics say otherwise.

Thousands of dollars and, typically, several days (not hours) are spent each year on airline and corporate pilots to prepare them. GA pilots have that option, but on a smaller scale. Those who invest in themselves can frequently approach the airline level of safety because they work at it. Do all pilots need that level of training? Certainly not. The VFR private pilot operating in light winds in the local area on nice days can operate quite safely with relatively little training as long as his basics are good and he is proficient. However, when you start to venture forth from the home drome and into various weather systems with new geography, the need for regular competent training ratchets up quickly if a comparable level of safety is desired.

Regulation has a significant effect on the airline pilot's decision-making process. Many of the decisions that a GA pilot is faced with are already made for the FAR Part 121 pilot. For example, when the weather is below landing minimums as the flight arrives at the final approach fix, it's either on to the alternate or hold for improvement. In GA, the pilot gets to decide whether to shoot the approach. The risk is slightly higher, along with the temptation to cheat. There are many more constraints placed on the airlines, and the paying public is entitled to a higher standard of care. It also becomes obvious why our operations entail more risk.

So why can't GA be like the airlines? Because they are different entities performing vastly different missions for different reasons. The different segments of GA flight ops are as different from each other as they are from airline operations. Corporate flight departments operate in a completely different environment from that of the aerial applicator, the CFI, the doctor flying on business, and the grandmother doing aerobatics. We should copy the airlines' good ideas where it makes sense to do so and recognize the areas where it doesn't.


See also the index of "Safety Pilot" articles, organized by subject. Bruce Landsberg is executive director of the AOPA Air Safety Foundation.