Has Airline Safety Peaked?

Posted on 13. Feb, 2009 by in Featured

At the end of my last article I asked the question. Unfortunately I think it has, and the evidence is undeniable. The world’s regulatory agencies (specifically IATA) not only seem to have not noticed, but are exacerbating the problem through dangerous and misguided regulation. The Air Transport Association (ATA) has led a campaign of pressure against the pilot unions and their contracts. Pilot contracts have been decimated since 911; the ATA utilized the catastrophe to their advantage with great effect. Pilot productivity equals fatigued pilots, period!

So why are the skies so safe now? One word: experience. And not just any experience; intense flight training and a pyramid-based pilot system that cut the weak or unqualified — removed through attrition, failure of check rides, or death. Experience really is the heart of my book, Project 7 Alpha. Historically, to get hired by a major airline, you had to have a wealth of experience — and not just flight hours; aircraft commander time (PIC) in jet or turbo prop aircraft was an absolute requirement. For a military-trained pilot, 2,500 hours was considered a good total, a civilian-trained pilot needed between 3,500 and 5,000.

Military training was more intense (flight time was also recorded in a lower multiple) and produced a much higher attrition ratio, but by the time a civilian pilot reached 3,500-5,000 hours, any difference in pilot training had equaled out through experience. By then, the average civilian pilot had gone from student, to CFI (certified flight instructor), to flying for an unscheduled operator, to a commuter airline or corporate job (flying jets). And he had to have 1,000 hours of Captain time or PIC (pilot in command). The PIC was critical: if you had 15,000 hours and no PIC, you could not get a major airline job.

My military training started in the T-28B Trojan; a 1,425 horse power machine that looked like a WWII fighter. After 70 hours of heated competition, we were split between jets, props, and helicopters. I next moved on to the T-2C Buckeye, a twin-engine aircraft carrier-based jet. It was an ugly jet, but still did over 500 knots and was acrobatic. A quick 100 hours later, I was landing solo on the USS Lexington. From there, straight into the cockpit of the TA-4J Skyhawk, a delta-winged Light Attack jet (fighter to the rest of the world). Much of that syllabus was solo. After hitting the Lady Lex again, I finally received my wings. Two years of intense training in instruments, landings, formation, and weapons delivery gave me a mere 300 hours, but it was quality! And much of it was PIC.

This was just the start. The Nuggets (new Naval Aviators) were sent to various Fleet Replacement Squadrons for another 6 to 9 months of training on the aircraft they would fly in the fleet. For me, it was the EA-6B Prowler. After sixteen more carrier landings, six in the dark of night, I was finally ready for the fleet. My training started all over again as soon as I arrived on the USS Midway and checked into VAQ-136. We started with Section Flight Lead, then Division Flight Lead and ultimately, Airwing Strike Lead many years later. The multi-engined crews went through an elaborate hierarchy as well, culminating in Aircraft Commander.

My civilian counterparts were running cargo in old aircraft — at night, by themselves — through mountains and storms. Flying commuter aircraft, in nasty weather, to uncontrolled airfields with short runways, or flying all over the world in trans-sonic bizjets. The experience was not free: many perished along the way; many more couldn’t hack it. The vast majority of my Aviation Indoctrination classmates did not make it out of training. Each check ride, whether civilian or military got progressively harder. Each hour, each minute of experience was stored away.

Eleven squadrons and 4,000 hours later (most of it PIC), I was proud to be hired by American Airlines. The experience level of my class, both military and civilian, was truly eye-watering. We had former commanding officers of military squadrons, DC-10 wide-body captains, and everyone had thousands of flight hours. Oh yes, and a four-year college degree as well; in fact, many had Masters.

Even after all of the turmoil in the industry for the last eight years, we just ended one of the safest years on record — capped off with Sully’s amazing ditching on the Hudson. Again, why? Back to one word: experience. But now we need to add another: quality. I’m relatively junior at my airline and I have 11,000 hours of flight time, 6,000 in the aircraft I fly, the MD-80. I am not the exception; in fact, I’m on the low side of experience at American Airlines. Most of us are in our forties and fifties and have been flying for twenty years or more. This is the current industry standard.

So why am I concerned about the industry’s future safety? Because quite simply, the job is not worth it anymore. The cost for a civilian pilot is simply economically unfeasible: hundreds of thousands of dollars to secure a job paying $20,000/year is just dumb. The military pilots don’t want to take the huge pay cuts to come to the airlines, so are going to cargo, overseas (where they are treated much better), or staying in uniform.

The best and the brightest no longer want to fly for passenger airlines in the United States.

It started in the rest of the world when the price of fuel drove the cost of training out of sight. Coupled with the end of the Cold War (no need for military pilots), the pilot ranks shrunk. It became acute when the active airline pilots began to time out at age 60. To counter the shortage, standards were lowered, especially in the third world. Accidents caused by lack of basic aviation skills started to occur in Central America, Asia, all over the world. Aircraft were being crashed when auto pilots flipped off, or the crews stalled the wing and didn’t recognize it, fighting a simple stall 33,000 feet to the ground. You do stalls on your first flight, it is lesson number one. One captain in Malaysia tried to land a 737 one-hundred knots above the correct speed, almost twice the required approach speed. Of course, it ran off the end of the runway, killing many passengers. These are rudimentary skills; it just doesn’t get any more basic!

As the crisis began to reach critical mass, the industry received a reprieve from 9/11. As the airlines in America shrank and collapsed, experienced crews were flushed into the cockpits of the world. I have friends flying in China, Dubai, Japan, Europe, South America and all the far-flung regions of the world. That pool of experience is diminishing and will be gone soon. Many pilots have left the industry in frustration. The real danger, however, is on the entry level.

Before the current economic downturn, regional jet carriers were recruiting students directly from flight schools to go fly jet airliners full of passengers. A Part 141 school can graduate a commercial pilot with 190 hours, the vast majority of which is flying single-engine bug smashers around the patch. These airline pilots cannot even apply for their Airline Transport Pilot rating (ATP), and thus move to the Captain seat, because they do not have the required 500 hours of PIC.

The International Air Transport Authority (IATA) has come up with a two-pronged solution of lowering the standards and extending the mandatory retirement age to 65.

MPL-Multi-crew Pilot License: an ab initio program for training airline pilots. Sounds innocuous, even formidable, but it’s the single biggest lowering of standards in the history of aviation. In fact, it all but eliminates standards for International Airline First Officers. Ab initio means starting from nothing, by the way. The program lasts a whopping forty-five weeks, with 240 hours, of which thirty have to be actual flight time. Thirty? Yes, thirty. A week-and-a-half’s experience for a normal airline pilot; the rest is in a simulator. PIC time required; zero, nada, zed, nothing. Think about that for a minute: that teenage slacker lying on the couch in the next room, if he lit a candle under his butt, could be flying a 747 jumbo jet across the world, with 300+ people in it, by next fall. Gives one pause, does it not?

Here is the bottom line; there is a direct correlation between experience and accidents:


The above chart shows the linear relationship of the normal progression of a civilian-trained pilot, bottom to top. Granted, as you ascend, the equipment is more sophisticated, but it is also more complex and thus harder to fly. Remember, the numbers are skewed because general aviators are killing just a couple at a time, the size of aircraft increase going up the progression; a normal Part 121 airliner carries hundreds. So, the least experienced are crashing a lot more often and more catastrophically. The military has known this for years and keeps a very close watch on their inexperienced flyers. They are always on a seasoned pilot’s wing, who will not hesitate to fly his young wingman’s airplane by shouting commands over the radio.

Here is a chart for those who believe flying airliners is merely pushing buttons:

Click to view larger image

Take particular note of initial and final stages of a flight (take off/initial climb-final approach/landing). They are only 6% of the flight time or exposure and yet account for 68% of the accidents and 40% of the fatalities.

It is also the time that the airliner is being flown manually by the pilot.

Still think experience doesn’t matter? Just hook it up to the auto pilot and let the computer land it? Sorry, they have limitations, a lot of them, and when you would want them the most as a pilot, on a gusty and windy day,, you can’t use it, period. I have more fingers on my hands than auto-lands in my log book after 10 years of flying. At an airfield like LaGuardia, you can’t use it; even at JFK International most of the time, it can’t be used. Why? Because you are flying a very tight visual approach to keep the traffic moving. At LaGuardia, for Runway 31: you fly to the white water tanks, take a right down the expressway, then do a pylon turn around Shea Stadium, allowing a last-minute play to line up on the runway and land. Oh, and the runway is short, no overrun except the river. Still want the teenager with thirty hours at the controls?

IATA is pressuring the FAA to start the same program and thus except these pilots into USA airspace. They already won on age 65. The regulators insist there is no safety issue: and yet two 60+ year olds cannot fly together. So imagine that young kid, with no experience, halfway across the Atlantic and his 64-year-old Captain has a heart attack. Now you know why I’m concerned. Even if the FAA submits to IATA’s pressure, it may fill the First Officer seat, but MPL still will never replace experienced Captains. In fact MPL pilots can never be Captains; they don’t even have a commercial license, let alone an airline transport pilot certificate. As they say in Maine, “you can’t get there from here”. No doubt they will lower the standards again, this time for the Captain.

No Responses to “Has Airline Safety Peaked?”

  1. Rick 13 February 2009 at 14:19 #

    So what’s your take on the CO-3407 crash? Sounds like icing played a big role. I heard an american pilot on MSNBC wonder aloud if they had the auto-pilot on which would have masked the growing icing problem. They appeared to be at 2300 feet and just beginning a 20 degree left turn (which might have also helped induce a stall), and over the outer marker I think. Since witness said it came straight down, sure sounds like a stall, don’t you think?

  2. Rick 13 February 2009 at 17:04 #

    CO-3407 so now we heard the NTSB briefer this afternoon says they reported ice on wing leading edges and windshield. Even though de-icing was activated, they still had ice. I wonder if it’s possible windshield de-icer, and leading edge boots could both fail at the same time….or were the systems just overwhelmed by too much icing at once. Also, as soon as they dropped gear and then put flaps to 15 degrees, everything went to pieces. Will be interesting to hear the briefings tomorrow. Rick

  3. pete 13 February 2009 at 18:44 #

    Hi, I see what you mean with MPL. I don’t think MPL in itself is a problem is how you implement and follow it up that will make the difference. The safest airlines (by records) are not in the us or europe but asia/pacific. Still in europe and us things are very very good even if training approach are quite different. lot of f/o flying in europe on ‘frozen’ atpl coming out of integrated training school such as bae etc. Also heard of many missed accidents avoided thanks to the ability of frozen atpl young pilots (from lufthansa for example). Lot of errors in the past have also been done by experienced crew. Quality for sure is the key to me. Then comes the intrinsic qualities and abilities of pilot that do are not totally reflected by the flown hours. Sure more is better, but quality first, and you have to start from somewhere. Qantas (one of few airlines in the world with no major accident) for example I know they have their new f/o with low hours flying with crews of 2+ experienced/training pilots. And it proves to be working pretty well! Also there is no more point flying turboprops or c152 if you want to be on a jet with all that it onboard. md80 are some of the oldest around almost disapeared in europe and asia/australia. Now you need to be an it tech to manage (and not fly the plane). So for sure there is a uge need of reshaping the training for new requirements (new way of flying) and for filling that seat… Today with the hours we fly you build up hours so quickly that if the progression is properly followed it can be of top quality straight from day 1 with all the airline standards in your blood. While in the past you could fly for thousand of hours away from airline standards level and building up bad habits… let’s not stop change, but accept it, innovate towards top quality and everhigher standards

  4. pete 13 February 2009 at 18:53 #

    totally agree with you that a lot more could be done to improve safety but I feel the system recently got too complacent on good records and competitive system went too far pushing limits stressing the crew quality of work. I don’t want cheap tickets, but happy and relaxed crew, maintenance staff, training staff etc etc…
    1 week off at every destination is no more reality, but we went too far on the other side now… take care, enjoy and spread the passion of flying around…

  5. Chip 14 February 2009 at 12:43 #

    I agree ice and the resulting stall are the likely causal factors. I suspect the de-icing boots were overwhelmed by the ice vice failed (I’ll explain it in a post). I think as they slowed to approach speed, coupled with the turn, the wing stalled. It is also likely the tail had accumulation preventing a recovery with the altitude available.

  6. Chip 14 February 2009 at 15:18 #

    I agree that some intense schools can compensate for experience and I have always thought that hours was a poor judge of experience (Part 141 schools versus the local patch is a good example). As the Operations Officer of a Training Squadron in the Navy, the first thing I would do was flip to the back of a guys log book check the date on his section and division quals and then flip to the last page filled out in the log book. If the dates were close (especially if it was the same month); I would not give him a section/division qual. I didn’t care what his hours were. By not giving the pilot his qual until he was leaving, the previous squadron made it clear they did not trust him.

    Drilling around on autopilot is a waste of time, in is a point I wrote about in my third novel. And I agree 5,000 hours in a Cessna does not translate to airline experience.

    I often felt when I was instructing in the TA-4J, that we could start students in the TA-4J; and skip the T-2C (the new T-45 program does this). However the progression is important; especially in the civilian world. Ramping up to more complex aircraft and gaining experience as the PIC is critical to airline pilot building.

    Remember a sylabus should be designed to make Captains not terminal First Officers. Eventually the Command experienced pilots are going to time out. Where will we get the Captains then, the MPL pilot can not be a Captain.

  7. Chip 14 February 2009 at 15:27 #

    On your second point I agree that the industry as a whole got very used to having a great safety record. I think that they didn’t get why. It was the experience of the crews not just in total time but in specific aircraft. There has been little movement. so most pilots have stagnated and been in the same seat/aircraft for years. Personally; I’ve been in the right seat of the MD-80 for all of my 10 years except 8 glorious months in the 767/757.

    I hope to keep sharing my passion. My second novel is with the publisher (Pen and Sword) and I’m trying to wrap up my third. I also recently bought a share in a Beech Musketeer. Three of my four kids want to learn to fly (my second son is in a part 141 school now).

  8. Chip 14 February 2009 at 15:31 #

    It now appears very likely that the tail accumulated ice, stalled and caused the aircraft to pitch nose down. I came accross a NASA video that describes exactly what seems to have happened. I will write a new article and get it posted. EVERY pilot should see this.

  9. Rick 14 February 2009 at 16:57 #

    I have read several pilot comments about the tail stall now. There is a good article in the NY Times today that quoted an aernautical engineer as saying that once icing is a problem, there are certain airplanes that introduction of flaps renders the airplane out of control. Apparently they will affect the wing, but can also affect the tail. There was almost an instantaneous connection between lowering flaps to 15 degrees and loss of control. I think one lesson to be drawn from this is that if a pilot of this particular aircraft can not control icing, I think he really needs to consider a no-flaps landing. I might be wrong, but I think one would have to reach this conclusion. Your thoughts? Rick

  10. Rick 14 February 2009 at 17:07 #

    One more thing…I am puzzled by why they would have had gear down 6 miles out. They hadn’t yet turned base to final. I know they were over the marker, but still…dropping gear before you drop flaps? If you have any thoughts on that I’d love to hear them.

  11. Chip 15 February 2009 at 00:57 #

    FAA (if memory serves) requires gear down at final approach fix, every company I have worked for has it in their procedures. Even on visual I usually drop the gear at FAF out of habit. They were on the ILS for 23 so they were folowing normal procedure.

  12. Rick 15 February 2009 at 07:54 #

    OK I understand re dropping gears at the FAF. Do you have a thought on comment #10 re no-flaps landing? Thanks,

  13. Chip 15 February 2009 at 11:30 #

    There are normally many causal factors in an accident. I think that in this accident the use of auto pilot will be one of them. Along with crew fatigue and experience. By using the auto pilot up to the FAF the crew would not have felt the control anomalies. As they re-configured the wing the aero dynamic phenomina I posted about today would have occured.

    There is an old saying in aviation: If you move something and it dosn’t do what it should, move it back.

    They tried; but the control loading being extremly heavy in one direction and light in the other IMO lead to PIO. With the nose pitching up it spiked the angle of attack on the iced up wing causing it to stall. A characteristic of which is wing rock. The wing rock would account for the rolling moment. They were in a dire situation and just didn’t have enough altitude to regain control.

    No flap landings are considered an emergency in a high performance (airliner) aircraft. To get fast cruise speeds they make the wing as small as possible. To land safely they put the flaps slats etc, that actually re-shape it changing the camber and flow. The change lowers the approach speed dramatically. I think once the crew re-cognized the problem they were going to go around and probably divert to a field out of the icing. It just didn’t work out.

  14. pete 10 March 2009 at 12:30 #

    just to the point… http://www.flightglobal.com/blogs/learmount/2009/03/pilots-who-needs-them.html
    I understand what some says about experience, but as I said it’s not only about flight and managing systems, but it’s abount overseeing complex digital systems that are flying the plane with some type of high level decision making authority that was not possible before… not surprisingly all problems we had in the recent past are not on badly maintained planes / old planes / poorly trained crew / small regional airlines / but on the latest equipment with top experienced pilots etc etc…

  15. chip 12 March 2009 at 08:15 #

    You have to look a little closer. The Turkish Air flight had a “Cadet Pilot” onboard. Although, I have not read who was at the controls. In the BUF crash the Captain had just over 100 hours (a month and a half) in type. The First Officer had around 2,000 total hours, a comuter pilot can easily get 900-1000 a year. So if you subtract just minimums for a Commercial license, she had less than two years experience at the airline.

    I do agree that it is the type/quality of training that counts. And that is ultimately my point. Thousands of hours watching an autopilot fly straight and level dosn’t give a pilot much experience, let alone a couple of hundred. IMO this is exactly what the MPL program is all about; system management. Some times the automation fails, and then you have to fly it.

    Both the above aircraft were stalled, the most basic pilot skill is to maitain flying speed. These basic aviation skills is what, IMO, the MPL program treats as a side issue.

    Aviate, Navigate, Communicate.

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