Letters to the Editor
Subject: Pilot Safety vs. a Predictable Distraction
From: Thomas W. Bell, Sr. firstname.lastname@example.org
I am concerned about the possible connection between low pilot pay vs.
accident rates in commuter airlines. The facts run something like this (I'm
recalling data from what I've heard in the media):
- Commuter airline accident rates are 5 times greater/unit exposure than major
- Pilot error is the major cause of accidents in both airline types.
Then it must follow:
Commuter airline pilots cause more accidents than major airline pilots.
The question is why?
- 1. Poorer training ? Recent shift to 121 regs will deal with this.
- Less experience.
My suggestion is to look at external job stress on pilots involved in these
accidents for a link to distraction from the task at hand.
This new generation of pilots, unlike military-trained pilots of the past,
come to their first airline pilot job with heavy educational debt in the $50,000
to $100,000 range, with a salary structure that has not increased during the
last decade. There must be constant financial stress trying to live on a net
(after training expense deductions) of $15,000/yr.
The ex-military pilot has had the 2,000 required hours, the multi-engine
hours, and child bearing cost paid for by the government. But the new breed
pilot has borne all of these expenses, while earning at a moderate to low income
level [comparable to military income]. The military trained pilot had paid
training and excellent fringe benefits. The new generation pilots are older than
their military predecessors and therefore have accumulated more family living
I do not look for a reduction in commuter pilot-error accidents, with the
inclusion of commuters in FAR Part 121 regulation, because it deals only with
equipment and pilot training. It fails to address a very probable root cause,
i.e., distraction from the task at hand, which can be caused by financial
While I detest government regulation, except where no other remedy is
available, I judge that, for safety reasons, the government must relieve some of
the competitive pressure on the commuter airline companies by setting reasonable
pilot compensation in the industry.
Which is more important, low fares or safety?
I'm certain that most business travelers, who put their lives in the hands of
these pilots, would be shocked to know their pay scale.
It certainly sounds plausible. We know that pilot error is the prime factor
in the majority of accidents (60 to 80%) and that distraction is the prime
factor in pilot error. Well-paid pilots would be less distracted and safety
would, therefore, be improved.
The problem is that, in over 25 years of air safety research, I have never
seen any data that supports the theory. If the theory is scientifically sound,
then one would be able to show, by objective statistical analysis, that the
higher the pilot pay, the lower the accident rate. In other words, a positive
correlation between the two.
The worst air disaster in history (Tenerife, 1977, 583 fatalities), was
caused by one of the highest paid pilots in the industry. Distraction was a
factor, but it was the factor of regulation that distracted that pilot (he was
about to run out of legal duty time and was rushing to depart Tenerife to avoid
having to spend the night there). One could argue, from that accident, that duty
time regulations cause pilot distractions and thus increase the accident rate.
Commuter airlines used to have a significantly higher accident rate,
especially before Deregulation. Today, however, the rate is comparable to that
of the large U.S. airlines. That is true whether you measure the accidents per 1
million enplanements or per 1 million aircraft departures (19 passenger or
larger, and Alaskan accidents excluded from the database). I attribute that
improvement to the following:
Smaller, under powered piston planes, have been replaced with larger higher
powered jet-prop planes. Jet props fly better on one engine and those engines
fail less often.
The newer commuter planes have much better navigation equipment and fly a
greater percentage of precision approaches than before.
Pilot training is much better, not only because of simulator availability,
but also because of affiliation with the majors (United Express, Northwest
Airlink, American Eagle, etc.).
CRM/CLR and GPWS, two of the most effective safety tools, didnít exist in
earlier commuter days, but they are now a significant factor.
Since I am an airline pilot, I would love to see data proving higher pilot
pay translates into higher safety. Honesty, however, forces me to admit that
neither pay nor union membership has any correlation to safety.
Robert J. Boser
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