Diversity In The Cockpit: Does Who’s At The Helm Matter For Safety?

Diversity recruiting for pilots isn’t a bad thing. There aren’t enough pilots, so you want to go recruit people that wouldn’t ordinarily become pilots.

There are really two separate questions that follow,

  • Are lower standards being applied to the pilots you’ve recruited?

  • If so, do those lower standards matter?

I’m in favor of recruiting aggressively for talent, looking for it where others aren’t. And I’m in favor of supporting that talent, helping them to acclimate to a culture where they might not otherwise feel comfortable. Here’s what major airline pilots usually look like, see if you notice anything here:

Here’s a thought exercise, how much does it matter if slightly less qualified pilots are hired? More than 99.9% of the time, probably not a lot!

  • When it matters, it really matters, but most passengers will never experience that.
  • In fact, advances in technology mean that air travel with an inexperienced pilot is far safer than it was when I took my first flight, with the most able and experienced pilot.

Here’s what aviation deaths per million passengers worldwide looks like since 1970.

The issues we’re seeing with Boeing 737 MAX 9 aircraft are scary and, I’d argue, far worse for U.S. passengers than what caused the Lion Air and Ethiopian 737 MAX 8 crashes five years ago. Bolts on a door plug coming lose, causing the fuselage to open and the cabin to decompress, is a failure that can happen anywhere. The 737 MAX 8 ‘MCAS’ issue causing a crash would likely never have happened in the United States.

The story of the 737 MAX’s development is well known at this point. For reasons of cost and speed to market Boeing redesigned the 737 – which dates to 1967 – rather than starting from scratch on a new more fuel efficient narrowbody aircraft.

  • Boeing relocated the plane’s engines higher up and forward.
  • This caused a tendency for the aircraft to pitch up (the nose of the aircraft would nudge up) which created risk of stall.
  • So Boeing developed software to help pilots trim the stabilizer nose down when the plane’s angle of attack is high, flaps are up, and the plane is turning steeply. This was necessary so that the aircraft would handle in the same manner as previous 737s, and maintain the type rating so that the aircraft would be approved as just another 737 rather than starting ground up.

The flight law was triggered based on data from a single angle of attack sensor. When that sensor generated a faulty reading, the software kicked in and forced the plane’s nose down ultimately with disastrous consequences. As an option airlines could order an angle of attack disagree monitor so pilots would know if one sensor was off.

When the MCAS system activated it would cause a nose down pitch repetitively unless the pilot trimmed it out and ultimately overrode the flight law.

Now the 737 MAX has to compare data from both angle of attack sensors, and if there’s a difference of over 5.5 degrees between the sensors MCAS will be inhibited throughout the flight. MCAS will only activate once per incident, eliminating the repetitive nose down pitch. And pilots now maintain elevator authority.

The pilot no longer has to use the non-normal checklist for runaway stab in order to override MCAS because it becomes inhibited automatically. But a well-trained pilot would already know how to address this when it happened. For instance, the stab trim cutout switch.

The 737 MAX crashes happened because of an automation failure. Modern aircraft are designed precisely so that anyone can fly them – including the pilots that Lion Air was onboarding. They are designed so that it doesn’t matter who is in the cockpit. Aviation isn’t just safer in the United States and Europe, it’s safer in emerging economies and even those that aren’t doing much emerging.

  • A well-trained pilot, pretty much anyone flying in the United States or Europe, would likely have successfully handled the situations that caused the two MAX 8 crashes.

  • But our expectation of modern engineering is that they shouldn’t need to. And most of the time they don’t which is why aviation has become incredibly safe everywhere, even where we don’t have pilots as well-trained as we do here.

When we’re debating pilot training, and even pilot rest rules (which are incredibly important), we’re debating issues that address very small ranges of risk.

The reason the 737 MAX crashes were scary is that we expect these machines not to be sensitive to human error, and they were. So we’ve insisted on solving for that. But as these machines advance, that means that the range in skill of a pilot matters less and less often than it used to.

That’s the reality that anyone becoming a pilot needs to consider: it’s a very high paying career today, but there will come a time when computers as copilots perform safety functions better than human co-pilots. Regulatory agencies won’t allow it when that happens for some period of time, but eventually the demand for pilots halves.

I don’t even need to speculate on a future beyond computers-as-copilots to expect that pilot careers won’t be as good a path for many in the future than they’ve been for those in the left seat of a widebody aircraft today.

I want two well-trained pilots in the cockpit when I fly today. I’m willing to pay a premium for that. But the margin of safety we’re buying with that premium is probably a lot less than we think it is, and in the future humans overriding machines could well be what compromises safety.

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community InsideFlyer.com, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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  1. You are correct Samir…..there are various levels of skill at all airlines and there is no correlation between skin color and flying skill….training and attitude are by far the biggest determining factor of how good a pilot is…..the one’s who point fingers at others as being weak are often the weak ones themselves.

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