This is hardly news, Pilot Error is still up there as the number 1 reasons airplanes crash. Every study that looks into this concludes the same this. 70-85% of airline crashes are attributed to Pilot Error.
In the heyday of aviation, machine fault was usually responsible for crashes. According to Boeing, 80% of crashes were attributable to machine causes in 1903. Technology improved and now only 20% are now attributable to machine error. In my experience, Pilots have a lot more work to do to be safer operators.
It is safe!
Before I am accused of fear-mongering, let me be clear of what the data says.
In the UK, the death rate per billion (yes, billion) Kilometers flown is around 0.05 deaths. Compare that to the bus (the next safest mode of transport) and you get 0.4. Meaning you are 8 times as likely to die on the bus than on an airplane for a comparable journey.
Planes don’t compete with busses, though. A fair comparison would be with rail. 0.6 is the magic number for rail transport and that is 12 times more likely than airplanes.
In perspective, That means 5 people die every 100 Billion (yes, I know)kilometers flown on an airplane. So safety is not in any immediate risk.
In April IATA released its report for 2019, it is important to understand that numbers of accidents are falling with fatalities falling too. On average, a person would have to travel by air every day for 535 years before experiencing an accident with at least one fatality. If you were involved in an accident in 2019, there was about a 15% chance that you would die.
There were 8 accidents with fatalities in 2019 with 50% of those accidents responsible for 80% of the fatalities.
Also, the accident rate is continuously falling, the number of accidents is staying the same or marginally falling.
Now, with that clear. First lets talk more about the other humans in the chain.
Human Causes is not always Pilot Error
The easiest example to think of is maintenance error, if something is fixed improperly or replaced incorrectly then it counts as Human Causes. Airplanes are complex machines and as such contain thousands of components and thousands of tasks need to be done to keep them flying. So, something is bound to go wrong, miniscule as the odds are.
The guideline for maintenance staff are extensive and the qualification process very thorough. The people who release the aircraft into service or allow them to depart after a check or a fault are experts in their own right. However, it does happen that with long hours and continuous tasks something slips through the cracks.
Another human cause can be the humans in Air Traffic Control. They are the ones who tell the pilots to go up and down, left and right. They are also often under pressure and stress. Their main job is to make sure the airplanes are not hitting each other. However, if you watch this, you will know that mistakes happen.
Even the airlines themselves can have human causes inflicted upon the flight, whether it is poor oversight, insufficient training or even bad scheduling. This can further complicate the issue
The devil is in the detail
Most of the media reporting on pilot error relates to total accidents or total fatalities. This includes many private pilots with a much shorter experience log and less complex requirements on how to stay current with flying.
73% percent of accidents have errors by Cockpit Crew as a contributing factor. What does that mean? Think of it this way, if an engine blows up at take-off, like it did with Sully, and the pilot mishandles the exercise or does something not exactly by the book, then pilot error gets a mention. No matter how many other factors could have been engaged in the situation. Terrible weather, long working hours, inadequate rest or anything else. Pilot Error will still show as a contributing factor.
I am not absolving pilots of their errors. Pilots are humans, humans make mistakes. Around 50% of Airline accidents that lead to fatalities are cases were the pilot error was the primary cause. Even then, within those 50%, the accident rates vary considerably.
The number changes with relationship to the type of flying. The United states has clear data on part-135 (think charter and smaller operators) versus Part-121 which is regular airlines. “For the 5-year period 2003–07, the crash rate for Part 135 was more than twice the rate for Part 121” says this study. Which means you are twice as likely to have an accident flying on a chartered airplane versus flying on a scheduled airline.
Another factor is the generation of aircraft flown. Newer generation aircraft have an accident rate that is around a third of the previous generation.
Importantly, it is worth noting that pilot experience is important in determining accident rates as well
Where are you flying and how experienced are your pilots
Johns Hopkins university studied the issue in 2002 and their findings are not exactly surprising to pilots. Pilots with less than 5,000 hours of total flight time were nearly twice as likely as their more experienced counterparts to be involved in a crash. Many other studies since have agreed with the finding that experience matters.
5,000 hours is an arbitrary line to draw, however, it resonates with a large number of airlines with respect to experience needed to become a Captain. This is usually the bare minimum. Most have more or much more depending on the airline and the rate of growth of the airline and the depletion of pilots on the other side. However, most of the flying public would agree that more experienced pilots in the airlines makes more sense.
The environment the pilot works in, greatly influences the accident rate. It is well established that the airline pilot fly in matters, but also the part of the world that the airline is based in also matters. There are many regions in the world where oversight by the regulator and the general operating atmoshpere help a safe operation.
Other regions, especially in Sub-Saharan Africa and the old block of countries that made up the USSR, are continuously facing issues with oversight. I have seen lack of resources to invest in inspections and training for the staff on the government’s side. I have seen airlines push their staff to work more than what is usually acceptable in search of efficiency.
Pilot Error as a sum of their threats and errors
Every good airline emphasizes Threat and Error Management (TEM) for their pilots. TEM has shown incredible results in reducing accident rates when applied. It also gave us valuable insight on what are the highest threats.
An IATA study showed that meteorology was a threat factor in around 48% of fatal accidents and 36% of all accidents between 2015-2019. Meaning pilots where caught unaware of the weather they were going to face.
Let’s compare two flights, as per the following table
|Pilot A||Pilot B|
|Generation of Aircraft||Fourth||Third|
|Experience||More Experienced||Less Experienced|
|Geographic Location||Middle East to Europe||Africa to Russia|
Based on what we learned above. Pilot B is much more likely to cause an accident than pilot A. Even if they are both equally qualified and skilled.