Here’s a number that should be on the front page of every major newspaper: 224. That’s how many people died–worldwide–in airline crashes last year. Around 3 billion people boarded some 35 million flights, each of them traveling over 500 miles per hour in an aluminum tube 7 miles above the earth. And only 224 died. That’s simply an incredible number.
Some other statistics may put it into perspective:
- Over 400 people died in the United States last year from falling out of bed.
- Over 300 people drown in bathtubs every year.
- About 2,900 people are killed by hippos in the average year.
This is just the latest evidence that humans are terrible at evaluating risks. Next time you think about taking a bath before getting into bed, consider that you might be safer in seat 34D somewhere over Siberia.
In fact, 2013 was the safest year ever for airlines, surpassing 2012 (which was the safest ever), which surpassed 2011 (which was the safest ever)–you get the picture. The few accidents that do happen are basically flukes, like the seemingly intentional crash of a Mozambique Airlines airplane or the Russian 737 pilot who apparently didn’t have a license.
The business jet record is similarly impressive. There were a total of 6 fatal accidents in US-registered jets (tracking non-US private airplanes is tougher) during 2013, resulting in 17 fatalities. While certainly tragic for those 17 people, this is another ridiculously small number. All of these fatal accidents were in Part 91 operations, so literally no Part 135 jet charter customers died.
The end result is that, if you buy a ticket or book a charter on a jet in the United States, your chance of dying in a crash is almost zero. I may be tempting fate here, but the statistics say that we’ve pretty much won our battle against fatal accidents. That’s not a reason to get complacent or assume pilots are perfect, but it’s time we acknowledge the facts.
That’s something the FAA and NTSB are having a hard time doing. Declaring victory would be, in many ways, a defeat for these organizations in the contest for power and funding. Like a political group who wins their election, it’s hard to move on, and simply maintaining the status quo doesn’t advance a career. The incentive is to do more, to break new ground–which means more regulations, more programs and more cost. But what problem are we solving? We’re far beyond the point of diminishing returns; we’re now in the statistical noise.
So let’s relax on the sleep apnea witch hunt. Let’s relax on the 1500 hour first officer mandate. By definition, the cost/benefit analysis cannot work for these policies (you cannot have fewer than zero accidents). But we’ll all be paying the costs of these–and many other–decisions for years to come.
And it’s not just airline pilots and passengers who pay the cost. Many of these regulations impact general aviation, sometimes in unimagined ways. The sleep apnea policy is just the latest example–an expensive program that fixes a non-problem that is aimed at the airlines, but will end up burdening private pilots and scaring new ones away.
To be fair, general aviation’s accident rate is certainly higher than zero, and it has not been improving nearly as fast as the Part 135 and Part 121 world. There is a huge gap between the safety of that airline seat and the one in your average Cirrus. But I’d argue that the GA accident rate has leveled out for the same reason it has leveled out (at almost zero) for the airlines: we’ve done just about all we can do. All that we can do, that is, without fundamentally changing what aviation looks like in the US.
Want to get that GA accident rate close to zero next year? Mandate two pilots, twin turbine engines, detailed Standard Operating Procedures, rigorous biannual training, IFR flight plans for every leg and Part 25 airplane certification standards. That’s the proven recipe for miraculously safe flying, and it would most likely deliver impressive results for all of us. But obviously it’s completely at odds with what general aviation stands for: we can’t have perfect safety and the freedom of flying a Cub without a radio or a flight plan. It’s not possible.
This is not a defeatist perspective, it’s a realistic one. New technology and better training are great things, and we should always strive to be better pilots. We owe that to our passengers and ourselves. But that responsibility is on us as individual pilots, not on regulators. If you and I manage the risk well, we can fly very safely in general aviation airplanes. We have to recognize that not everyone will, though, and I’m not sure catering to the lowest common denominator does anything other than damage GA. We simply have to accept some risk in exchange for the wonderful freedoms we enjoy as private pilots.
Are the FAA and NTSB willing to accept that? I’m not convinced.
Don’t get me wrong: these organizations should exist and they have an important role to play. The paying public deserves to fly safely and have confidence when they buy a ticket. But there’s a fundamental difference between public transportation and private flying. When we chase shadows in the airline world, there are serious consequences that trickle down to GA. It’s time to be more sensitive to these consequences, and to be more realistic about risk.