Letters to the Editor

Subject: Pilot Safety vs. a Predictable Distraction
From: Thomas W. Bell, Sr. twbell@mindspring.com

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):

  1. Commuter airline accident rates are 5 times greater/unit exposure than major airlines.
  2. 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. 1. Poorer training ? Recent shift to 121 regs will deal with this.
  2. Less experience.
  3. Others.

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 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.

 

EDITORíS REPLY:

 

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.

March, 1998

Robert J. Boser    
Editor-in-Chief 
AirlineSafety.Com

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