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Understanding Airline Safety in Today’s World

By Michael S Hatfield
April 23, 2015

safetyAirline Safety is on the top of everyone’s mind after a bad apple got into a Germanwings’ flight crew and created a very sad and disturbing event. This isolated incident was the handiwork of a derange person and is not indicative of the mindset of professional Aircrew members.

As frightening as this event was, if one believes there is an industry-wide safety problem here, then he likely does not understand what pilots actually do.

It is easy to leap to the conclusion that because of the acts of one deranged European Co-Pilot, having technology flying the airplane would be better, safer. Firstly, odds say there is not a systemic issue here and secondly, reasoning suggests one must accept there will always be some element of risk in flying. As a 40 year veteran with General Aviation and Commercial Airline experience, I am confident when I say to you “Airline Safety requires considerably more in its composition than just technology.”

So you ask, “don’t airliners just fly themselves?” Well, yes, and no, really. Technology or not, “pilots are always the ones flying the airplane.”

In keeping with these thoughts, it is necessary we accept the fact there is always risk in about everything we do in life especially if our activities involve riding in mans’ flying machines traversing the sky 8 miles high and at a speed of 9 miles per minute.

Let us ponder a second on US Airline statistics and the level of risk to a passenger. If just one airline like Delta Air Lines flies more than 5,000 flights each day, the number of Air Carrier flights daily in the US is a very large number. We know Global airline flights last year made up a whopping 37.4 million total flights flown, averaging 102,465 flights a day.

In regards to passenger fatalities, the 2014 numbers show the Airline Industry is doing an outstanding job in continual improvements to Passenger Safety. Airline passenger flying is now safer and safer, year over year. Amazingly, last year, there was just 1 airline fatality per 2,925,000 flights in our world. Holy smokes–that is just.000034% risk of death while flying on an airliner! To put it in perspective, your chance of dying from bicycling is 1 in every 340,854 times out. We are worrying about 1 fatality in 2,925,000 airline flights? Not me, I am not worrying about that one at all, thank you.

So, you ask should we replace humans in the cockpit with machines and technology? Uh, uh.

You say, “today’s jet airliner has more and more technology to do the job, right?” Well, yes that is true, but not entirely true as computers do not, and can not, do all the job.

Pilots are just like bus drivers, right? Definitely not true, let’s think about that one a while.

A new-hire Airline Flight Crew Member typically has a 4 year College Degree, an advanced FAA Pilot License, the highest level FAA Medical Certificate and at least 6-7 years of experience before being hired on. He is then trained a full 3 months more before he can sit in a Co-Pilot seat, and then monitored for some time longer by an Instructor Pilot. A pilot undergoes recurrent training each year and must continually demonstrate a high level of proficiency in dealing with abnormal and emergency events. Captains must test their acumen every 6 months to get the blessing to fly. In addition, every Aircrew Member is required to prove medical fitness every 6-12 months to an FAA Aviation Medical doctor, or guess what, he is not allowed to work.

A well-known Airline Captain and Aviation Safety Expert, Captain Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger, had it right when he said “the layman has a fundamental misunderstanding of what pilots do, and what technology can and cannot do.” He further correctly emphasizes, “pilots are always the ones flying the airplane.”

Well, what about the drones that fly themselves? Drones crash all the time and no one pays much attention to those statistics for a very good reason. Drones, as remarkable as they are, are very unlike airplanes used in airline passenger operations as they do not carry life’s most precious cargo. A very much higher safety standard is required for me to get on that airplane!

Pilots routinely use technology, or some level of it, to help supplement their actions in how they fly the airplane. When technology fails and it does fail, a pilot must take over the controls and manually fly without help from electronic boxes. In my career as an Airline Captain and Lead Line Check Airman, I can tell you a professional pilot is always expecting equipment to fail and anticipates what he will do when it does.

Over many years, technology has been integrated into an airliner’s flight systems because it assists the pilot in flying the machine by relieving pilots of repetitive and oftentimes monotonous tasks. Computers do that chore well enough but cannot address issues for which they have not been programmed. Further, they cannot be programmed for every conceivable event and possibility, and certainly not for multiple failures occurring in some perverse random order. When a jet airplane moves through the sky, things happen very quickly and the order they occur is in a constant state of change. The pilot must continually think ahead on where the airplane will be at least 8 minutes before he actually arrives there.

Complex issues in flight are best dealt with by a human who can rapidly adapt to what is unforeseen, unanticipated and unpredicted. A solution has to be applied, and it must necessarily be the correct solution. There is no room in this environment for a wrong decision applied to a dire issue.

In that concept lies a pivotal difference between technology flying an airliner and a human doing it assisted by technology. Humans are naturally-gifted with an uncanny ability to analyze, then react to unanticipated complex and rapidly-developing situations.

A pilot can reason, prioritize and innovate inflight solutions even if he has never seen a particular situation before. Well-trained, experienced pilots rapidly adapt timely to issues and respond with proper actions. This protects the flight and the passengers contained within.

Humans have limitations too and, of course, we are not perfect. But, astute people flying passengers in the airline industry are accomplishing remarkable feats year over year in making air travel increasingly safe.

The outstanding U.S. Passenger Safety we enjoy in the United States has not happened by itself. It is a result of a blend of continually-developing technology designed to assist Pilots to fly other humans “safer and safer.”

So, if you say that you “must have both astronaut/pilot “Dave” and computer “Hal” to fly your family to Chicago for the holidays,” you will have it right. Both pilot and computers are mandatory Passenger Safety equipment.

Captain Michael S. Hatfield served more than 25 years as a Captain and Lead Line Check Airman for one of the nation’s largest International Airlines. His position placed him “center court” in the safe operation of large turbine-powered Commercial Jets in Passenger Operations. Involved in General Aviation since the age of 18, he continues to enjoy flying while representing Buyers and Sellers as a Real Estate Broker and Consultant in the San Francisco Bay Area.