The discussion started with my wife’s innocent commentary on France’s coronavirus lockdown requirements. “Can you believe that the French have to carry a piece of paper to leave the house?” Before she could say another word and to the surprise of both of us, I erupted with a diatribe: “Excuse me? So, they need a piece of paper to leave the house? How about the fact that I need to file an avis de vol or PPR prior to every flight in Switzerland, that a flight plan is needed for any border crossing inside of the “border free” European Union, or that I am required to have my Mode S transponder on, broadcasting to the world a precise track of all of my activities? If French health rules are going to be presumed to signify the dawn of authoritarianism, then try being a pilot in the free world.”
Aside from the tantrumesque nature of my fusillade, I have been brewing (ahem, repressing) an argument for a while in my mind that private aviation is treated rather unfairly compared to automobile transport, if one considers the underlying principles behind reasons for regulation of both. What works for cars focuses on safety and respects freedom, yet pilots and aircraft seem willing to put up with an overbearing and disproportionate excess of rules compared to ground transportation. It took the inconvenience of a health crisis to synthesize the argument in my mind.
The most poignant case stems from Switzerland regarding airport hours. For those who read my rantings from Germany years ago, “operating hours” rear their ugly head again, something that thankfully Spain doesn’t seem to care about. I’ll digress a moment to remind everyone that operating hours and information service requirements in Germany stemmed from the Nazi era. At present, uttering the slightest Nazi phrase in Germany can result in job loss and arrest, whereas Germans will admit that the genesis of information service requirements is from the Third Reich, and its completely ok to practice that restrictive Nazi tradition (against pilots) in modern Germany, whereas everything else has been eviscerated from their culture.
Ok, so back to Switzerland. Local communes “come to an agreement” with airports (i.e., tell them) what hours the airport can be open. Most in Switzerland are sunrise to sunset, capped at 8PM in summer. Some go to sunset in summer, others allow only takeoffs until 8PM and landings until sunset. A few allow some basic night VFR on occasion. The rule springs from noise concerns. The commune basically determines when they want to hear airplanes fly. I failed to mention that some airports have restrictions on Sunday, at lunch time, and if a funeral is occurring at a local church.
As with most things in Switzerland, they at least have a traceable origin and make a shred of sense. At the same token, when I compare to automobile traffic, I can’t help but grimace at the disparity. I personally loathe, with a vehement passion, noises from cars and refuse to live anywhere near a road, which is how I solve my personal preference regarding the ever-present miserable hum of car traffic. While I would love if local towns would regulate car noise out of my life, it is a concept that simply never crosses my mind. Yet, when it comes to aviation, occasional air traffic after 8PM is deemed excessive, while cars and trains continue to make a racket in Swiss villages, free to do so whenever they please. To me, it boggles the mind that the differential in treatment is not questioned.
Another matter, that is more prevalent in Europe, arises with regard to insurance. If an aircraft is out of annual or if the pilot has anything but a current license and medical for the flight in question, then there is no coverage, even if those matters had nothing to do with it. I have never toyed with the matter, though I would presume the same condition exists in the USA. Yet, if an automobile is out of inspection, or if maintenance was done not in accord with manufacturer recommendations, would coverage be denied for an automobile accident? Of course not! I am unsure of the situation with an expired license and insurance with a car in the US.
The irony with insurance is that “breaking any regulation” can result in the loss of coverage in Europe. I believe, though do not quote me, that causality with aviation insurance in the US is more of a factor than Europe, and may be US state specific. At any rate, are not most automobile accidents the result of breaking a regulation? Yet, “that is what insurance is for.” In the case of aviation, good faith piloting with an error in complying with a mountain of rules carries incredible weight.
For that matter, I have seared into my mind the deleterious horror of as much as being on the ramp near an airplane without one’s pilot certificate, medical, and state-issued photo identification in my possession. Fines are in the thousands of dollars, in the US, in the event of a ramp check – not if one attempts to enter and fly an aircraft being a non-pilot – but if the person left the documents at home. In a car, the police furnish a limited period to return to the police station with the driver’s license and do not squabble as much about issues as to whether it is in one’s possession.
I could go on and on, though I think the point is made that pilots face far higher requirements on all fronts, and far worse consequences. Some might argue that “aviation is different,” and I would be inclined to agree with regard to commercial and transport operations (more people, more speed, more weight, more fuel, more boom). There are strong requirements, they result in very low accident rates, and those are not in question. Yet, for a small aircraft that weighs less than a car carrying the same amount of people as a sedan, I think the corollaries are more profound than we think.
The issue with aviation is protecting the general public mostly, and passengers second. The same rule applies with cars. In fact, if an airplane crashes, the chance of it hitting a bystander or building on the ground is much less than if a car endures a crash. The amount of pedestrian deaths or, for that matter, deaths of occupants of other vehicles not at fault, is staggering in the United States. Cars routinely travel within 5 to 10 feet of opposing traffic, pedestrians, and sometimes buildings. The condition of automobile maintenance in the US can be staggeringly disregarding of the value of life, yet we culturally think it’s fine to careen down the road in vehicles weighing one to three tons with a fraction of the training, licensure, and maintenance regimentation than a private aircraft. The results speak for themselves: cars kill at an astonishing rate.
One has to ask where the root of the problem lies. Regulation is a product ultimately of democracy, which derives of looking after the interest of the majority. It is rather simple and obvious that more people drive than fly; thus, the incentive is to arrive at an equilibrium that the average citizen agrees with regarding automobiles. When it comes to airplanes, there is little reward for a non-pilot to have any sort of non-airline aviation; thus, fear and disinterest in aviation inconveniences (noise, funding local airstrips, etc.) abounds. AOPA in the US is a fantastic example of banding together as pilots and pushing back against the inevitable monster that would be the general public’s disinterest in aviation, whereas AOPA membership and therefore power in Europe is miniscule comparatively. A smaller percentage of pilots in Europe join their local AOPA, rendering the final lobbying outcome far more anemic. The results are evident with byzantine and nonsensical regulation imposed upon pilots by a web of public ignorance.
It is further interesting to analyze differences with American and European automobile training and licensure. Europe has requirements for extensive schooling, compared to the US where parents teach their [unenviable] driving habits to their children. Automobile inspections, while nothing like an aircraft annual, are far more rigorous, such that the sight of a “rust bucket” on the road is virtually non-existent. The results are clear: road deaths are significantly less in Europe, so much so that I have seen three total accidents in four years of European travels, including on packed roads that are far tighter than anything in America. As one can tell, I support the European approach to driving.
Yet, there is still a paradigm that holds true with roads in Europe, despite significant differences in training and maintenance: rules make sense. Road engineering, speed limits, and other posted signs and restrictions follow the same basic concept that exists in America: people want to get from point A to B as fast as they can without killing themselves or others. This reality is a perfect example of how precise, targeted, and effective increases in regulation can create a required investment of training, maintenance, and operating practice that pays tangible dividends for everyone involved. Many of the aviation regulations in Europe that I rail against produce no tangible dividend, other than a Byzantium of nonsense that needs to be tracked, for a purpose few probably even remember.
I illustrate the prior paragraph to demonstrate that quantity of regulation is not the sole barometer of restrictions to freedom. There is much more to do and keep track of on the roads in Europe, yet the outcome is still relatively equivalent to America, despite higher regulatory burden. Higher European regulations in aviation, on the other hand, just annoy pilots, operators, and maintenance professionals. That further cements my democratic and lobbying argument: the general public, even in Europe, would not tolerate mountains of stupidity in driving regulation, as there would be a groundswell of public rage at the prospect. Since aviation here has small numbers and its political influence is not weighty, non-pilots often devise the rules, with no feedback cycle to their lack of sense. In fact, in a recent article I posited the basis that some European aviation rules have been relaxed, due to the squashing of GA experience. It was my theory that, if rules squeezed off the pipeline of pilots to airline cockpits, then the general public couldn’t go on vacation, which is an example of democracy at work.
This rant could go on ad infinitum. I will mention, on a positive note, rules and coronavirus restrictions notwithstanding, that flying is still a tremendous unbridled joy, even during this crisis, and I treasure whatever I am allowed to do in these crazy times even if, for reasons I do not understand, some coronavirus related restrictions require enhanced fire services, thus reducing airport operating hours….