Strictly business

September 1, 2005

As the executive director of the AOPA Air Safety Foundation, Bruce Landsberg often flies GA on business.

One of the great attributes of general aviation is the ability to travel easily and conveniently, something that is, unfortunately, becoming a thing of the past on the airlines. When we have to travel for business, or pleasure, for that matter, it's tempting to slip the surly bonds in a light aircraft. We get to go mostly where and when we want to. The passengers are of our own choosing, security harassment is minimal, and the luggage usually gets to the same place the aircraft does.

So why wouldn't any rational business want to have the flexibility and opportunity that GA makes possible while improving the productivity and morale of employees? The main reasons are safety and liability, and the company risk manager (RM) is less than thrilled. The answer often is not just, "No," but, "Hell no!" If you're the boss it obviously is much easier, but your insurance company may have some concerns.

Business flight is described as flying in pursuit of business, with the pilot not being paid for piloting services. His or her primary job might be as an executive, marketing manager, engineer — anything that does not involve flying as a full-time job. Business flight as an activity, despite the risk manager's protestations, enjoys an excellent record. It's not as good as corporate flight operations, however, which employ hired guns who are often in crewed turbine equipment.

According to the AOPA Air Safety Foundation's 2004 Joseph T. Nall Report, which looks at accidents from the previous year, the numbers shake out as follows.

Corporate flight accounts for an estimated 5.4 percent of GA flights but only 0.3 percent of the fatal accidents. Business flight comes in at 14.4 percent of GA flights but has only 3.2 percent of the fatal accidents, while personal flight is the big loser with only 50 percent of the flight activity but a whopping 76 percent of the fatal accidents. Another way I look at this is to say that business flight is five times safer than personal flight but corporate flight is six times safer than business flight.

For many RMs, their standard is based on the exceptional safety record that the airlines and corporate flight departments have achieved. For those of us flying light piston aircraft, that is a tough act to follow for a variety of reasons. The airline/corporate equipment is superbly designed to manage mechanical malfunctions, almost as second nature. Turbine engines are legendary for their reliability, and while reciprocating engines aren't bad, they're clearly not in the kerosene league. Weather in turbine equipment is occasionally a nuisance that is dealt with at the beginning and end of the flight. With light aircraft we may be fighting thunder, icing, or turbulence every step of the way, if we choose to fly.

Engine failure is first and foremost on everyone's mind, and while the vast majority of these failures are either completely preventable by good maintenance or getting that all-important fuel into the machine, occasionally there's some really bad timing where a critical piece breaks and it's forward and down over an unsuitable landscape. It's extremely uncommon with all the caveats mentioned but most RMs keep score of all accidents, which supports their perception. If the aircraft is well maintained, and they all should be, it comes down, as usual, to pilot skill and judgment.

Let's look at a few typical business flight accidents and then consider a preventive approach. A review of the ASF Accident Database online — selecting business as the type of flight with the search criteria set to fixed-wing aircraft weighing less than 12,500 pounds and fatal accidents during the past five years — yields some interesting data. There were 97 accidents or about 19 per year on average. That's 1.6 accidents per month on average — not a big number but enough to make some RMs uneasy. We don't have denominator data to estimate the number of business flights made during a typical month, but it's likely in the tens of thousands. Accident flights make up a miniscule percentage but remember that these people are paid to be professional worriers, not just on aviation matters but on everything that possibly could go wrong that might cost the company big money.

A few accidents selected at random from the group included a Cessna 310 and a Cessna Turbo 210, both of which struck terrain in two separate incidents after canceling IFR flight plans prematurely and scud running to get to the airport. One was at night and the other was in mountainous terrain. That is not a low-risk approach, if you'll pardon the pun.

In another example, a Piper PA-32 suffered a loss of power during takeoff after the pilot failed to select a tank with adequate fuel. When the engine stopped, the 6,000-hour pilot stalled the aircraft on an attempted return to the airport. That was a critical lapse in using the before-takeoff checklist. Another PA-32 had a low-altitude encounter with a thunderstorm that resulted in an in-flight breakup. The pilot had ingested ethanol and cocaine — not exactly the best of substances to use either for business or flight — they fog the judgment a bit.

In yet another example, an Aero Commander 500 stalled on a night-IFR approach after an icing encounter. The weather was reported as 1,000 overcast and six miles. The aircraft was equipped for flight into icing conditions but the 860-hour pilot neglected to turn on the prop anti-ice. The conditions weren't great but were probably flyable if all the equipment was used as designed.

You can review the list at your leisure, but my assessment is that many of the pilots had greater-than-average experience and were generally flying high-performance equipment. In some cases, the airplane might have been a little light for the job, but in others it was more than adequate. The message is the same as it is for personal fliers — there's always a need for decent airmanship and judgment.

Looking at this through the RM's eyes, is there a way to gain his or her trust? Consider a staged approach just as you might for a new business proposition. Limit the company's downside risk — don't carry any passengers, at least initially. Sure, that's one of the major benefits of sharing business travel, but people are very expensive to replace so reducing the exposure is a real positive.

Tired iron has no place in the equation. Whether it's your own aircraft or a rental, it needs to be in top condition. Imagine doing the preflight with the RM present and having to explain the bald tires — I've been meaning to get those replaced but they still hold air. What about this oil on the belly? Oh, it's probably just been overfilled. And I suppose the oil dripping from the cowl is a result of overfilling too? Well, I'll look into that. This thing sure is dirty. It's been flown a lot lately — that's really good for the engine, and I haven't had time to get it washed. What does the "inop" sticker on that gauge mean? It's not really important. The radio shop is going to work on it any day now.

To paraphrase columnist Dave Barry — I'm not making this up — the aircraft may be safe but look doggy. In business, when you're trying to sell a concept or product, putting the best foot forward always gives the best chance of success.

Traveling on business means at least some adherence to a schedule; but if you have no options, do not fly GA. Planning a GA business trip around a "have to get there" scenario is tempting the gods. With no backup plan, such as ability to postpone the trip, drive, or submit to the airlines or a dogsled, you can be assured that mechanical grief, thunderstorms, icing, low ceilings, high winds, extreme turbulence, and all manner of meteorological mayhem will occur exactly when the trip is scheduled. Before and after the critical time, the weather will be perfect. The key to good aviation decisions is to remove the pressure. Sure, you'd like to fly; but if the business outcome is unchanged, or even if it means a temporary business setback, rescheduling is always preferable to a bad flight outcome.

If you don't have an instrument rating and some actual time in instrument conditions, acquire both. The companies that do allow staff to fly themselves almost universally require the IFR rating and the ability to use it. There is at least some evidence that new IFR pilots may get into difficulty as they transition out of the training groove and into the real world of air traffic control. An experienced mentor may be just the ticket to get you going. It doesn't take 2,000 hours to fly on business, but many companies aren't thrilled about a 300-hour instrument-rated private pilot carrying key staff members. We aren't all born with airline transport pilot certificates so it's something you'll have to ease into.

Some simple things that corporate flight departments do to cut their risks will work well for the business flier. Here's a short list. Avoid circling approaches at night and stay out of mountainous terrain at night or in nasty weather. Many companies require an annual flight review and instrument proficiency check, regardless of annual flight time. Get a transcript from the training organization or CFI to show the RM that you're taking a professional approach — good documentation will improve credibility. If the company has a corporate flight department, ask the chief pilot if he or she is willing to help by providing oversight, mentoring, dispatch services, or even some flight instruction. Some are happy to do so while others see your business flying as taking business away from the company airplane. You won't know until you ask.

Set up your own ops manual, present it to the RM, and remember that there are no guarantees. Specify your flight proficiency and currency rules, weather minimums, contingency plans, and equipment alternatives. It certainly won't hurt and in any event, it will be excellent preparation for personal flights if company officials don't bend on allowing you to use the aircraft for business. They won't know what they're missing.

For more information on flying GA for business, visit the Web site.