The Passenger Conundrum

September 29, 2010 by Bruce Landsberg

Synonyms for conundrum: ” Deception , drawback, Catch 22″ and ” Puzzle, complication, dilemma.” That sums up the challenge of encouraging people to fly with us but giving them a reasonable chance of surviving. How do they know if we’re any good? This conundrum plagues general aviation’s image. Last week we looked at the horrendous crash involving an overloaded Piper Seneca on a “mission” to buy an aircraft.  Five passengers  accepted a ride to disaster reasoning that a 2,000-hour-plus pilot must be OK. NTSB will publish probable cause on this fairly soon. I’m betting that decision making will be seriously lacking.

A retired professional pilot, Captain John, who visits our site periodically, sent me a very thoughtful letter regarding how to address this.  I’ve excerpted some key parts: “One problem is Part 91 passengers are unprotected by the regulations… The authorities recognize that commercial passengers have little knowledge by which they could evaluate risks of flight ….Unfortunately GA passengers are, in general, no more able to evaluate the risks they take…”

For Part 121 and 135 the system is largely mandated and nearly all corporate flight departments follow system safety concepts voluntarily, often exceeding what commercial entities embrace. The major challenge for GA, though, isn’t on the professional side – it’s personal. Years ago a newly certificated pilot invited one of the old timer’s kids for a ride. It was an innocent and enthusiastic request but the pilot’s father spoke up immediately saying that the new pilot needed some seasoning before any rides would be permitted with his family members. Many of us would react similarly unless we knew the pilot and his or her reputation.

A year after becoming a Private Pilot three friends joined me in a C172 to observe my ATC comm skills at one of the local big airports. That hazy east coast summer evening turned into murky night as we flew back to the short field that was home base. It was shades of JFK Jr except there were ground lights. The little airport  was tough to find since this long predated GPS and one actually had to use pilotage in those days. Lots of opportunity for mishap. Could this have turned out badly? Yup.

Captain John cites several accidents that we’ve discussed in the past and sums up,”We can continue to try and make pilots behave in a more rational way. If we fail, we have a tremendous obligation….to prevent them from subjecting uninformed passengers to completely unknown and unmeasured risks. Part 91 doesn’t do it; we must.” Now the conundrum: How to do that without infringing on the privileges of those who have properly earned them while giving the passengers a better system to judge for themselves when it might be wise to either not accept or terminate a flight early?

Should we publish a checklist to Part 91 passengers?

Your thoughts?

Bruce Landsberg
Senior Safety Advisor, Air Safety Institute

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  • Drew Bernard

    This is a tough topic that touches on issues of proficiency, experience and transparency. But keep in mind that the casualties of poor decision-making and flights taking place when pilots are proficient don’t just impact passengers. Remember the little girl that died in the beach house in Seaside Oregon a couple years ago when a GA aircraft crashed into it?

    We need pilots to take proficiency seriously, period. When I think about myself, I am pretty sure that most of my friends would fly with me on just about any flight I invited them on. They trust me and don’t really know enough to gauge whether or not I am current or experienced enough for a given flight. Only I can know if I am proficient and that burden really does rest on me to be 100% sure before I put my own neck or those of my passengers on the line. Like many pilots, I have a personal minimums checklist and my bar is little higher for flights with passengers simply because they add one more variable to the flight.

    But about 3 years ago I started giving all of my passengers a “passenger preflight brief” which I adapted from a checklist a Cirrus Pilot named Mike Radomsky had given me. Today it doesn’t include anything to help my passengers know what questions they should ask me about my proficiency, but it could. I would probably keep the additional checklist item to something simple like “Ask Drew if he is proficient for this flight (experience and currency should be considered)”, but it could also point them to my personal minimums checklist so they could see why I judge myself to be safe to fly. This would not take the burden off me to ensure I am proficient for a flight, but it would invite them to ask questions they have every right to know the answers to.

  • Lee Gilbert

    I am constantly amazed at the number of my passengers who never ask what my experience/proficiency/currency level is. As a matter of fact, only one out of 581 passengers I’ve flown in my L-39 over a thirteen year period have asked, and I would think a flight in an L-39 would demand a much better response.
    The government requirements for part 91 passenger flying are certainly minimal. I would hope GA pilots would consider the added responsibility imposed by flying passengers, but then again, I would hope the non flying potential passenger group would demand to know something about the quality of their pilots.
    My guess is that the average non flying passenger still regards private flying as a thrill and accepts that risk accordingly. If this is true and the aviation community wishes to change this culture, then the aviation community needs to step up to the plate an self impose much more stringent passenger flying requirements.

  • Len Sherman

    I have found the ASF safety courses and video accident reenactments extraordinarily helpful in my perpetual quest for pilot proficiency.

    But I found the recently released Cross Country Crisis, reenacting a Seneca crash of little value. The pilot was so obviously and woefully deficient in the most basic standards of pre-flight and enroute flight planning, matched only by a similar lack of judgment in penetrating IMC with no fuel reserves, that there is no meaningful lessons to be learned by any serious pilot.

    My concern is that serious pilots who habitually access your safety services won’t benefit from stories like Cross Country Crisis, while those who fly in the depicted manner probably aren’t accessing ASF but should be!

    I will continue to read your excellent work and look forward to stories in the future where even dedicated pilots can better relate to the circumstances described. I also fervently hope that ALL pilots take advantage of your excellent efforts.

  • George K.

    I agree with Len S.: that “CCC” piece was truly lacking compared with typical accident-based safety videos. More than one hazardous attitude played a part in that accident and there were few lessons for typical pilots to take away from that scenario.

    As for the retired airline pilot’s comments: they all seem like a preamble to more regulation for part 91 flying … a bad idea all the way around. Pilots are like all other professionals, there is a broad spectrum of ability and quality. You can’t regulate away all accidents and all risk.

  • Jerry Sharp

    I ask myself this question before I take someone up, am I current enough with the type of flying I will be doing, in the area I will be flying in and the aircraft itself? If not, I proceed to get extra flight time in those areas first. But I frequently encourage other pilots to fly with me for both safety and comradery reasons.

    I do not think we need more regulation. I think what we do need is more awareness and to be reminded preiodically by organizations like AOPA and EAA. I would also be helpful if there were some sort of document printed up for the non aviators to read about the basic safety rules and what to expect on the flight.

  • Dick Vockroth

    Last year I was asked to take a group of cub scouts up for rides, and was given a two-page questionnaire to fill out a week ahead of the date of the flights. This covered such information as my level of certification, experience, insurance, etc. and I was impressed by the concern shown by the organization. I would recommend that any group considering such an event follow their lead.

    Whenever I take passengers, especially for their first flight, I spend at least 15-20 minutes to show them what a preflight consists of and what the instruments tell us and answer questions. I feel that this helps put them at ease so they may enjoy the flight more and also (I hope) show how much safety is central to all that we do. Sometimes we forget that while aviation is an every day experience for us it can be scary and mysterious for those going up for the first time.

  • Neil Ulman

    Interesting question.
    Long before I was a pilot I was a typical, trusting, clueless passenger, a journalist who needed to get to some remote places quickly by GA. I recall three flights which I thought were just fine at the time and would long have cheerfully repeated. Knowing what I know now, I would break cockpit glass to claw my way out of those aircraft before I would take off in them again.
    All were small singles. The first flight was with a newly-fledged, teen-age pilot with an inop DG. The second was over hundreds of miles of Amazon jungle – nothing but tall trees. The pilot of the third twice aborted the take-off roll when his door flew open. We made it on the 3rd try with me clutching a rope tied to the door handle to keep it shut.
    Later, after I had some cockpit time with my CFI son, but before I started pilot training, I knew enough to decline a proferred ride in another single over mountains IFR in snow. Nothing against the pilot, whom I later came to know as conscientious and competent. Just didn’t like the increased risk.
    I take up many passengers now and always go though a safety briefing before take-off. But they are just as trusting and clueless as I was years ago.

    Would FBOs post the following sign? Would I post it if I were an FBO? Would it do any good?

    How well do you know your pilot?
    How many hours has your pilot flown in the last year?
    How many hours in the last 90 days in the type of plane you’ll be flying?
    Is the aircraft’s equipment working properly?
    If in doubt, don’t hesitate to ask.

    I really don’t know the answers to my questions above. Does anyone else?

  • Terry Witt

    I agree with Drew Bernard (1st post). Pilots are the only group that has a reasonable chance of making progress on this issue. To begin with, from a practical standpoint at least, there are no organized groups of non-pilot GA passengers of which I am aware (except for those who would close our airports, of course). Pilots receive, justly or not, a certain amount of automatic credibility from non-pilots just from the fact that they are doing something that their non-pilot passengers cannot. What is more telling are the number of GA accidents that involve multiple certificated pilots on board that allow the PIC to do make spectacularly poor calls. This suggests clustering of non-proficient pilots. I’m sure most of us have a few pilots with whom we will ‘never fly again’. Some of these pilots, inevitably, end up injuring GA passengers and ruining perfectly good aircraft. Most FBO operators know quite a few of these pilots (such as the ones who suffer fuel exhaustion while taxiing in from landing), but they aren’t going to post any signs that basically say “PASSENGER BEWARE!”, nor would I want them to.

    I do demo flights to non-pilot passengers that are either real trips or just for sight-seeing or the $500 hamburger (turbine), and before the flights begin I encourage them to ask me, just like any would-be client of any profession should ask: “why should I let you (design my house) (perform this operation on me) (fly me in this airplane)?” I tell them that if an architect/physician/pilot feels at all threatened by this question or refuses to answer it, just walk away. I ask my passengers to pose this question to me and anyone else because they might take other GA flights based on experiencing their first GA flight in one of my planes. So far, this comment has surprised every single one of my passengers, and all have been reluctant to ask me why my plane and I are both up to the task.

    We need to educate and protect the non-pilots we come in contact with as much as possible, because they are likely to be a GA passenger of a pilot we don’t know on some future flight. I usually suggest that if they haven’t flown with someone before, stick to daylight/pristine weather/non-mountainous conditions, all of which they can relate to based on their driving experience.

  • Andrei Volkov

    As a newly certificated pilot, I ponder that question a lot. As my examiner aptly put it: “Always ask yourself whether you would take your kids on that flight”. Unfortunately, pilots often give wrong answer to that question, even if it is really about their kids. I find reading raw NTSB reports for refreshing lessons is a very productive activity and time well-spent, no need to wait until ASF produces a video or an article. In many cases you can almost hear pilots repeatedly beg their fate to issue them the harshest punishment. I think above mentioned notice at FBOs would serve a very good purpose. Experimental aircraft carry such a notice in the cockpit – that is pertaining to risks of the aircraft. Similar notice about the pilot would do good, I think. It is still up to passenger to accept the flight, but at least they will have a chance to ask a few helpful and potentially life-saving questions. How about “Always ask pilot to obtain a weather briefing. Ask him/her to do a preflight inspection. Demand from your pilot that no aerobatics, no low passes, no buzzing, no sharp pull-ups, no more than 30-degree turns be performed during the flight. “? Sounds like no fun to some pilots, but it would give more power to the people. PIC authority is great, but as we all know, absolute power also corrupts absolutely. So, my vote would be for passenger notices posted in visible places.
    As for multiple multi-hour pilots on board of many accident flights, it looks like oftentimes it is unclear who is the agreed-upon PIC, sometimes pilots assume the other pilot is doing the job and feel uncomfortable to point it out if they see some shortcuts being taken. I recently refused a flight as a passenger on a plane where one of the wing tanks was empty. Guess what, pilot agreed to add gas there and the flight was beautifully uneventful. Yes, reminder notices for passengers to ask questions would be helpful and may help keep at least some doomed flights on the ground!

  • Rick Ellinger

    Judgment, Proficiency, and Systems Understanding are all critical for the pilot. The passengers have little ability to evaluate the first and no ability to evaluate the second and third. Pilots rated private, commercial or CFII can all have weaknesses in situations that involve urgent travel or urgent decision making in the air when things go bad. I’d like to see a routine set of courses, similar to the safety briefings on AOPA that are required (tied to insurance renewal if passengers are to be carried) that stress judgment about making a trip and urgent decision-making in the air. Posting a checklist for passengers without warnings of risk and consequences, are not likely to help. Most are techno-phobic and a discussion of systems capability for them will bore most, scare a significant number and provide a false sense of security to others. Proficiency and airmanship are easily measured by a CFI biennially. A recurrent set of training programs specifically focusing on judgment before and during a flight, where circumstances such as weather change en-route, with documented results might help for many pilots.

    I’ve been a passenger in GA aircraft where, knowing what I know now, I would never get aboard. I’ve seen pilot behavior that may be good on the ground but once in the air, shows a complete inability to read the clouds, winds, and forecast and a great reluctance to alter their course.
    People who cannot navigate if their GPS unit stops working, people who will take off in fog with a fully loaded light twin and people who fly through mountain passes when they could easily be 2000 feet higher and clear of peaks alarm me. Just documenting flight hours won’t solve the problem; familiarity with the airplane breeds a complacency. Every airplane can have it’s surprising quirks any day. Commercial planes have backup systems, backup pilots and lots of rules with consequences.

    For GA and passengers, we need to have a ‘trust but verify’ program- judgment-building decision making, regularly taught and refreshed and documented would help. Originally I felt the FAA wings program offered some of this, but alas, we’ve moved away from that. Maybe we should revisit this with a ‘master aviator’ – oriented program en every class of GA aircraft. This course material, as check lists and scenarios, could be provided to passengers, who could then serve as judgment enhancement, particularly pre-flight.

  • Larry Wheelock

    I get so frustrated at so many of these I am sure reports are only presented to us as a video. Maybe you don’t realize it, but many of us, probably 100’s of thousands, still do not have access to high speed internet connections and thus these videos are useless, terribly time consuming, and just plain frustrating.
    Occasionally, some web masters or knowledgable people will produce a video that works ok on less than DSL speeds.

  • Mike Baker

    A tough and very valid issue. It’s part of the problem of being pilot in command. The PIC has decisions to make and I don’t know of anyway to force them to always make the correct decision no matter how many regulations, checklist, or methodologies we have. The PIC still has to make that decision.

    One of the things I try to stess with the pilots I train is responsibility of command. Anyone who rides with us, and particularly, anyone who is a non pilot, is putting their lives in our hands. It is an awesome responsibility. We should handle it appropriately. Consider the consequences to the families of our passengers if they were to die, consider it every time you takeoff with anyone else onboard.

  • David Heberling

    Cross Country Crisis is certainly an example of poor decision making, and woe to the passengers who volunteered to be his victims. The trouble is, don’t we all do the same thing when we hop in a car with our friends, step on a bus, subway, or train? Do we really need more regulation? I think part of the problem is due to the different flying characteristics of the same airplane flown at different gross weights. It is often said that most pilots fly alone or one other person. It is very rare for someone to fly with all seats filled. Therein lies the rub. The airplane with one person in it is not the same airplane with all seats filled. Does anyone ever test a pilot by flying at a low gross weight and then again at a high one? I think not. In my own experience, it is somewhat surprising the lack of performance one experiences at high gross weight. Even if the take off is done successfully, the landing is another matter. Again, it is the rear CG that makes the landing feel squirrely. It is a much different trim setting for landing with a back of the envelope CG than a much more forward one.

    The truth is, there is no getting around the fact that life is risky. Risk cannot ever be legislated away. Who knows, maybe more automation is the answer. The airplane will know how much it weighs and won’t take off over gross. It will require that a destination be entered and it will access whether the flight can be done with the amount of fuel it senses onboard. Even if this were true, there would be pilots who would try to defeat the safeguards. Also merely asking questions will not guarantee truthful answers. How is a passenger to know any differently?

  • Mark Dickerson

    Of course, this discussion is largely preaching to the choir. The readers here are doing their best to get it right. But that doesn’t absolve us of a portion of the blame for mishaps like “Cross Country Crisis”. A USAF safety magazine published the following quote decades ago.

    “We should all bear one thing in mind when we talk about the troop who rode one in. He called upon the sum of all his knowledge and made a judgement. He believed in it so strongly that he knowingly bet his life on it. That he was mistaken in his judgement is a tragedy, not stupidity. Every supervisor and contemporary who spoke to him had an opportunity to influence his judgement. So a little of us goes in with every troop we lose.”

    The anonymous pilot who attempted to get the mishap pilot to reconsider was probably doing this the right way. Would I have gone to that much trouble? Would you? We need to encourage our brother and sister pilots to get it right, even as we try to do this ourselves. A passenger checklist would be nice, but it will never make it to the hands that need to hold it.

  • Robert K

    ALL pilots make mistakes, remember Tenerife Disaster (most killed in an air accident) involved professional pilots, one who took off without a clearance. The recent New York accident when two professional pilots allowed a plane to stall and killed 50 people and one on the ground. I only have 200 hours but I feel my passengers are flying with someone who is safer than some professional pilots. When Captain John finds the answer I hope test pilots, military pilots, and professional pilots take notice.

    No law can make a safe pilot, I wish there was. Robert

  • Don R. Bush

    I think Capt. Sully said it best (concerning the inadequacy of the FAA NPRM on crew fatigue.)

    “…we owe it to our passengers to do for them the very best that we know how to do, and to have the integrity and courage to reject the merely expedient and the barely adequate as being, quite frankly, not good enough.

    That’s what it means to be a professional, whether one is flying for fun or for a living.”

  • Gerard

    I think Capt. John and you are barking up the wrong tree on this one. Let us focus on producing better pilots and let them educate their GA passengers.

    Most passengers on commercial flights will choose their airline based on schedule and ticket price, not safety record. I seriously doubt those same passengers would bother with a part 91 checklist. What I find is that many people do have a greater concern for safety when it comes to small aircraft. In my wife’s case it is more like a phobia, she wouldn’t fly with me if my name was Sullenberger! But many will also gladly climb aboard a C172 without asking a single question about their chances for a safe landing. I provide my passengers with a safety lecture regardless, this is the cost of flying with me.

    I am all for making aviation safer for part 91 pilots and passengers, but I think it needs to be done through education and not regulation. Somewhere in the quest for GA safety there is a cost vs. benefit line and I think we are getting close to it.

    Flying is both a privilege and a choice. The FAA stipulates that if a pilot has earned that privilege and maintains currency, said pilot may carry passengers. The regulations are intended to ensure that at least a minimum of proficiency is attained and then maintained . But ultimately the responsibility for conducting a safe flight rest solely with the PIC. Likewise passengers need to make a choice as to whether or not they wish to fly with said pilot, lets also call them PICs, “Passengers In Control”. Whether or not they make an informed choice is ultimately their responsibility, but even an informed choice will not be a guarantee of a safe flight. Even a great pilot can have a bad day or a bad plane or bad fuel, etc. How would more regulation prevent those accidents?

    Yes, more regulation might make GA a little safer, but at what cost? The very things that make GA possible and accessible are also the things that put GA at an inherently increased risk for safety when compared to the heavily regulated and much more expensive airlines. Each year millions will choose to enjoy the benefits of GA, but each year several hundred people will loose their lives in GA accidents, this is the unavoidable cost of that choice.

  • Robert K

    Well stated, Gerard

  • Luca Guidoni

    This article raises a very important point, and one that plagues me every time I invite a friend for a 100$ hamburger or get asked by one to take them flying. Having earned my PPL less than a year ago, i know that experience is working against me in this, and for this reason tend to be ultra conservative with passengers on board. I think that regulation is not the solution for this particular problem, which can be addressed just with a bit of common sense. Having done most of my flying in Europe, transitioning to the US I noticed a tendency of some pilots to “start up and go”, relying a lot on the electronics on their plane. An adequate preflight and a focus on proficiency are all that is necessary to drastically reduce accidents. Since I cannot rely on my experience, I bother about currency a lot. When I need to take passengers I try to make it so that not more than 2 weeks have passed since my previous flight, and if they did, schedule a short flight alone or with a CFI (depending on how much time has passed) just to be 100% current. That, combined with an accurate preflight, higher personal minimums, declining of any request to do stunts or buzzing and good passenger briefings should already increase the safety level, and there is still much more that can be done without taking the fun out of flying! It is important though that this mentality be taught to student pilots beginning in ground school and primary flight training.
    In the end, as pilots we are still human and will inevitably make mistakes, but with a little effort we can take action to see that these mistakes not endanger our lives and those of our passengers.