News Flash: GA Not as safe as the airlines!

April 28, 2010 by Bruce Landsberg

BlogI am always amazed at the mental gymnastics that some people make in comparing light GA aircraft to the airlines. I’ve written on this before but the false hope that Part 91 operations will ever even begin to approach Part 121 operations is pervasive in some circles.  Some politicians, a few regulators who really should know better and some folks who have something to sell,  continue to make this spurious comparison.

Don’t get me wrong – there is plenty more that can be done to improve GA’s safety record. That’s what the Air Safety Foundation is all about but let’s get real.  GA is not a monolithic entity. We are distinguished more by our diversity than commonality and that has an inevitable impact on safety.

  • Business jets  in most cases, match or exceed air carrier safety.
  • Turboprops are excellent but not as good as jets – type ratings generally aren’t required and they are often flown by single pilot crews.
  • Flights for business in piston aircraft – big step down from the above categories for a variety of reasons. The major difference is aircraft and pilot capability. They still have a very good safety record with 12% of overall flight time but only 3% of accidents.
  • Personal flying – This includes what some pejoratively refer to as “flying lawn furniture” to turbine aircraft. Here is where the bulk of flying takes place and where broad statements that GA’s safety record is 40 times (or more worse) than the airlines become misleading.  Personal flight makes up less than 40%  of non-commercial flight time yet accounts for 73% of the accidents in 2008. The machines, the motives, and the pilots are as different as can be.  We can do better but reasonably achievable goals should always be set.

In Part 91 there is little oversight and we allow individuals to make decisions about how safe their flight will be as long as there is no interference with airliners and little risk to people on the ground. In my view, that’s how it should be.

Everybody understands the risk difference between a sailor going out in a small boat and an ocean liner. Big seas and strong winds will send the little guy to the bottom and nobody is conflicted or surprised. Ditto, if  Captain Gilligan overloads and/or overspeeds his dingy and it winds up in Davey Jones locker. There is no attempt to make the ludicrous comparison to the liner which overwhelms the small craft in EVERY category by several orders of magnitude.

All that said, every PIC is master of his or her own universe. It’s as safe as you choose to make it and we in the industry should not be over nor underselling the risk of personal flight. ASF’s website is packed with  online courses, quizzes, articles and more that cover almost every aspect of safety. We show what happens when pilots behave badly and how to make good decisions.

As a group, GA should neither condone nor defend bad behavior but I would much rather make my own decisions based on good information than have further regulation and cost forced upon me because someone else thought that I should conform to airline standards. That’s my choice – not theirs! The safety water has been set out for the horses – and we encourage them to drink.

What do you think?

Bruce Landsberg
Senior Safety Advisor, Air Safety Institute

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  • Marcus Staloff

    This is an excellent exposition and insightful perspective. Unrealistic expectations are counterproductive. What can we realistically do, is much more helpful.

    Light GA flying, for mostly non-business use, is a heterogeneous mix. It is characterized by a range of motivations, attitudes, capabilities, and proficiencies. You have well captured the crux of the non-issue and I agree with your underlying philosophy: “..that’s how it should be..”.

    As you identify there is no valid comparison between airline travel and light GA travel. The airlines have an obligation to deliver the paying customer safely. This obligation can only be realized within the confines of a highly sophisticated and regulated environment operated by professionals as a full time paid undertaking. There is no such obligation for light GA flying, as well there shouldn’t be. If flying for pleasure and as a incidental and not required aspect of one’s life had to rise to a similar level of confidence, there would be little opportunity to do so and it would shrivel.

    The overall light GA accident rate has depressing emotional value but is not a valid indicator of operational flight safety. The poor rate can be mistakenly interpreted that this segment of aviation is inherently unsafe and that if a person partakes he/she is at undue risk. That is, of course, an untruth.

    I like to think of it in terms of a comparison of highway driving to flying. On the highway my safety is limited, in very real terms, not by my ability and adherence to the rules but by the other driver’s behavior; this is a direct consequence of high energy travel in close proximity. I can be a ‘perfect’ driver and still wind up dead. In the flying milieu my fate is mostly in my hands. If I do what I should do as a pilot I will most likely arrive safely. If I don’t, why then it’s a crap shoot.

    Thank you,

    Marcus Staloff

  • Ralph Britton

    At PAO we recently had a fatal crash that very nearly caused injury or worse to people on the ground. While it was legal for the pilot to take off under Part 91, the visibility was near zero; the tower could not see the runway and fire response went to the wrong street first as they couldn’t see the fire. Cause of the crash hasn’t been determined yet. However, the pilot of the light twin put himself his passengers and people on the ground at increased risk by materially increasing his workload in the event of an emergency or even minor malfunction immediately after take-off. Should zero-zero takeoffs be prohibited? Perhaps not, but this kind of decision needs to be strongly discouraged. You can only imagine the backlash against our airport that this has caused in our surrounding communities.

  • Allyn

    What we need to compare is the ratio of land based public transportation accidents to private transportation accidents. Then compare the ratio of public air transportation accidents to private air transportation accidents. I think the private pilots would come out smelling like roses and the drivers on the road would look really dangerous.

  • Bruce Landsberg


    The PAO accident was unfortunate. I won’t speculate on the cause but it’s all about making choices. One of the unfair things about assessing accidents after the fact is hindsight bias – that is saying that we would never have made the same choice knowing what the outcome would be. It is a naturally occurring human trait.

    I’m not justifying the pilot’s decision in this case but in assessing the risk we should look at his total experience, recent experience, recent training – many different things. What makes me just a little less judgmental in this case was last summer I made a takeoff from Cape Cod in 1/4 mile vis. I was familiar with the aircraft which was well maintained, had back up primary flight instrumentation and was in VMC at 300 AGL. It was a calculated risk – and all that said, had something gone wrong it would have looked foolish. It didn’t and the reward was a trip completed on time rather than a 3 hour delay while the fog burned off.

    Don’t know all the factors at PAO yet. ASF will be conducting a seminar out there in the near future and we’ll talk about some of these things. More on topic relative to the airline discussion – I personally will not begin an approach if it’s below landing mins.

    Thanks much for writing….

  • Ward Zimmerman

    I agree with you: common sense self-regulation. If you act stupidly and get killed, then it is nobody’s fault but your own and no one is hurt by yourself.

    Spin recovery was not required when I took instruction to receive my Private Pilot’ license in 1952; I had 200 hours in Navy pilot training where spin recovery was taught, but I thought I should know the spin characteristics and recovery technique in the J-3/PA-18 Piper cub I was now being instructed in. My instructor (an ex-Air Force veteran) declined. Subsequently I inadvertently got into a spin near the ground and, having not been checked out in spin recovery in the J-3, nearly crashed before my previous training enabled me to recover.

    Since then, my brother taught me instrument flying, pointing out that a VFR pilot can inadvertently enter IFR conditions and should have the knowledge and skill to stay “in control” of the airplane. His philosophy (and now mine as well!) is that, although not required, every VFR pilot should be able to fly on instruments for at least several minutes, especially in turbulence.

  • Guy Mangiamele

    Safety is clearly a personal matter. But as pilots we must also be cognizant of the fact that our decisions can affect the innocent on the ground. As a group, I believe one of the biggest errors we commit is overestimating the utility of GA aircraft in order to “prove” their value–and the argument that most of us (including AOPA) are guilty of using, me included, is that a light aircraft is such a great business tool. The often self-imposed pressure to use our aircraft in our businesses must contribute to a much larger increase in the accident rate than we estimate.

    I am in business and try like crazy to put my aircraft to work; but I have yet to see a meeting that’s so important it has to be done in person rather than on the phone–yet so flexible that it could also be rescheduled at the drop of a hat. Scheduling these meetings usually include many people’s schedules, and with all of these stresses comes the “need” to make the flight work. And after only several hours of presentations–let alone a day of client meetings–I’m probably in no condition to fly back. Fly a day earlier, or stay overnight in a hotel, you say? Anybody who has that sort of extra time in their schedule is either not banking on the mobility advantages that GA provides, or has a job that is far removed from what almost everybody these days experiences as the reality of business requirements.