Letters to the
Subject: Pilot Safety vs. a
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
- Commuter airline accident rates are
5 times greater/unit exposure than major airlines.
- 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 expense debt.
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 pressures.
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
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
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
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
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.
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The Editor of this Web
Page, now retired, was an airline pilot
for 33 years and holds 6 specific
Captain's type-ratings on Boeing Jet