There’s been a spate of bad publicity recently for airline pilots. One was arrested at Heathrow and charged with attempted drunken flying and another was arrested after a bizarre episode with a private plane in Georgia.
(The actual charge in the first case is “being aviation staff, performing an aviation function whilst exceeding the proscribed alcohol limit.” This sounds both very British and rather confusing because it seems to imply there’s something shady about being aviation staff, at least until you get to the end of the charge.)
Be that as it may, pilots probably aren’t any better or worse than they have ever been. On average, 11 pilots a year are caught in random tests with alcohol blood levels above the legal limit, USA Today reports.
Yet some news reports seem to be trying to tie it all together. Look at all the drunk pilots! Hey, and what about those pilots who overflew the Minneapolis airport? Of course, the writers are just looking for some context. But these incidents are not really related. The only connection is that pilots are human beings and, like the rest of us, they screw up from time to time.
It’s not surprising that people love to celebrate the “good pilots” like Capt. Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger III and criticize “bad pilots” who get drunk or disorderly. That’s fine. Good pilots deserve praise and bad pilots deserve criticism and I hope everyone gets what he or she deserves. But this focus on individuals can obscure the important issues at hand by putting the focus on people, not policy.
The string of anecdotes about good and bad pilots implies, correctly, that we’d all be better off if all pilots were skillful like Capt. Sully and not careless like Capt. Double Martini. But that truism doesn’t enlighten us much.
Identifying the bad guy — or the good guy — isn’t even half the battle. There are always going to be good guys and bad guys. How we deal with them — policies on how pilots are screened for blood alcohol or what distractions are permitted in the cockpit — are the issues worth talking about.
Anecdotes won’t address those issues very well, or other questions about pilot fatigue, declining pay and deteriorating working conditions. They won’t explain how regional airlines will recruit and retain skilled pilots while paying them less than convenience store clerks. Anecdotes will just give us something to applaud or shake our heads over before we stop thinking about it again.
This, ironically enough, is what Capt. Sully has been trying to tell us.