Less Competent Pilots Mean More Crashes

Eight of the nine serious regional airline crashes in the past 20 years involved pilots who had failed “check rides” multiple times, USA Today reports this morning. 

Some commenters reponded that the tests are so difficult that qualified pilots frequently fail them, but the article backs up its point. It cites fewer crashes on major airlines and much lower rates of failure among pilots involved in those crashes.

We already know that regional airlines are the minor leagues of commercial aviation. Many fine pilots come up through their ranks.  But legitimate questions are being raised about the pay, competence and working conditions of flight crews on regional airlines. These questions need to be answered.

Some suggest that the mandatory retirement age for pilots should be raised again, although last year it went up from 60 to 65. Perhaps it should be raised, but that’s not going to solve this problem. No 70-year-old pilot is going to sit in the cockpit of a regional jet for $23,000 a year.

The question is, who will?

It could be argued that the market sets the pay rate, and certainly that is so.  There are enough people hungry for a chance at the big leagues to play in the minors at inadequate pay. But are the people willing to do that competent enough? There’s reason to believe that this system doesn’t attract enough candidates to ensure that only the best end up in the cockpit.

The government could step in with tougher regulations, as some suggest, and disqualify pilots who repeatedly fail flight checks. That would almost certainly lead to a pilot shortage, which might force airlines to raise wages and passengers to pay higher fares.

But even if that were an effective mechanism, how long would it take? How many more crashes would we have? Not to be melodramatic — but how many more people would die?

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