Recently in the media, there seems to be a noticeable increase in the number of general aviation (GA) accidents across the United States. There are many arguments for this, one of which is due to more people traveling personally via aircraft, and not by public transportation, and general aviation is seen as the most affordable of all the means of traveling by aircraft. If it is true that the number of flights in general aviation is going up, then it's merely the result of the probability that the accident numbers may go up as well. We will also say that there may not be any increase at all, but that GA accidents may be more publicized on social media and the news more now than in the past.
Furthermore, looking at the data for the past five years one might disagree with the general notion of whether or not accidents are increasing across the country. One thing is for sure, related to the accident in general aviation there is more than what initially meets the eye. In this week’s On Aviation™ full article, We will take a deeper look into what is generally regarded as an increase in general aviation accidents over recent years, trying to get an understanding of what’s actually happening and how this might affect various stakeholders in the general aviation space. We will not bore you with data sets or numbers, however, we will talk about the actual trends based on official data and what this information means for the general aviation segment as a whole.
- There has been an increase in the reporting of general aviation accidents across news networks and social media.
- With greater awareness of general aviation accidents. it is easy for the public to misunderstand, and misinterpret what they’re seeing in the news and on social media.
- The general aviation community can be adversely affected by a real or perceived increase in general aviation accidents.
- The pilot training segment of the general aviation community, both individual flight instructors and flight schools are impacted in unique ways.
General Aviation Accidents
There’s definitely been an increase in general aviation accidents being reported on the news and via social media. The question one needs to ask, however, is whether or not this increase in reporting actually means an increase in actual accidents. Once again, what easily meets the eye sometimes is not what the facts really are. For example, according to the Bureau of Transportation Statistics (BTS) for 2018, 2019, and 2020, a three-year period, the total general aviation accidents across the United States have been on the decline, with 1270, 1220, and 1085 respectively. During the same time if one should follow the reports on social media and the news it would seem as if these three years mark a period of a significant increase in aviation accidents. Yet, the data does not support this belief.
As highlighted above, the public is becoming more aware of general aviation accidents and has been talking more about them in recent years. We believe the challenge for the general public - those not associated with general aviation - is that they’re getting greater awareness about the phenomenon or situation in a segment of an industry that they don’t fully understand. This Greater awareness of general aviation accidents without a complete understanding of the facts and circumstances around these accidents can lead to other effects such as stigmas surrounding the aviation community that are not necessarily good.
As discussed above, and can be seen in the data set, an increase in reporting does not necessarily correlate to an equal increase in actual accidents. This can be very dangerous, as it can and often lead to a misrepresentation of what is actually happening in the general aviation space itself.
Most things these days are driven by public perception, and whatever the public perceive to be a problem even in spaces that they do not understand can significantly affect their overall opinion of the space, in this case, general aviation, even though they may not fully understand or have all the information. The danger here is that the public could start asking for greater oversight of a segment that they do not completely understand. Since the public is the one that elects our leaders, then, whether or not some of these decisions may be the most prudent, the leaders are compelled to act in the interest of the public. This is why it’s very important that the image of the general aviation space that is presented to the public is one that the public can easily digest and understand, given that they are not operating in the space. If this is not done, then we run the risk of having the public clamoring or pushing for legislation or regulations to change aspects of the general aviation space that could be detrimental to its very survival.
Furthermore, the general aviation space has tried its very best to provide accurate and up-to-date information to the public about what goes on in space. However, sensational new stories are always more desirable to the public than the mundane Information that is put out by the community itself. That being said, it is very important that the general aviation space continue to do this. Continue to counteract the sensational misinformation about the general aviation space with hard, truthful, and factual information.
Impact On The General Aviation Community
The general aviation community is a very close-knitted one. It’s a community where its members learn from each other to try and mitigate any adverse effects from any phenomena that might affect the community. General aviation accidents can be considered the greatest of these kinds of phenomena. There are three general ways that general aviation accidents affect this community.
- Insurance premiums - One of the first things that those in the general aviation community think about when there’s an increase - real or perceived - In accidents, is a corresponding increase in insurance premiums for ensuring aircraft. This is understandable because the insurance companies have always moved to increase insurance premiums on individuals, on groups, and on all sectors if there is a local, general, or regional increase in accidents. Here’s one of the most interesting questions to be asked, however. If general aviation accidents are actually on the decline, why are some insurance companies increasing premiums? Might this be related to the fact that perception drives policy as much as actual events? Here’s what we do know. According to Air Facts, piston (general aviation) aircraft shipped (purchased) from 2016 to 2020 have been steadily on the rise with a flat line from 2019 to 2020. On the whole, there has been a greater number of aircraft purchases over the last four years as compared to four years prior to that. What is peculiar is that the number of hours flown even with increased aircraft purchases has been Steadily decreasing between 2017 and 2020. A colleague of the author, P. Nkuacha, stated insightfully, that it is because aircraft are more fuel-efficient and faster which leads to there being at the same time greater aircraft purchases with fewer flight hours in flight. Now, that still leaves the question; why are premiums going up?
- Extra precaution by prudent pilots - With a greater reporting of accidents the prudent general aviation pilot would tend to spend more time and money educating him or herself in what’s happening in the space regarding accidents and possibly taking on additional courses to train to be prepared for circumstances that lead to some of the more common accidents that are happening out there. This is in particular if the accident is related to an aircraft being flown by the particular owner-operator.
- Increased cost to owner-operators - All that is stated above, increased premiums, and increased precaution leads to increased cost for the owner-operator of general aviation aircraft. Some of these costs may include airworthiness directives (ADs) that may be issued down from the FAA from time to time to correct issues in particular aircraft that were related to an accident. All of this drives up the cost of owning and operating an aircraft.
Impact On The Pilot Training Segment
In general, the pilot training community would be impacted similarly to how the general aviation community itself would have been impacted by an increase in general aviation accidents, whether perceived or real. There are two notable differences, however.
- This segment of the community trains pilots - Because the segment of the community trains pilots, they not only fly more than the general community, they are in charge of providing the kind of information about general aviation accidents not only to themselves and direct circle but to those whom they train. Having to deal with the added regulations, new airworthiness directives, information about types of accidents, etc. must also be trained into the new pilots that are being trained. This adds an additional layer of training over time.
- The pilot training segment is primarily business-oriented - Whether it is a flight school or an individual instructor operating on their own, flight training is primarily a business. Therefore, there are other factors that must be taken into consideration from a business perspective when dealing with increases in aircraft accidents and all of the ramifications generally that come with this.
Therefore, all that afflicts the general aviation community combined with the two factors listed above will affect the pilot training segment of the community. This simply means that the pilot training segment of the community will incur higher costs as a result of increased general aviation accidents, whether real or perceived.
How Might Flight Schools Respond
As discussed above for the pilot training segment, all of those factors combined with the factors affecting the general aviation community will affect flight schools. How flight schools choose to respond may vary based on their unique circumstances. However, we find that the average flight school might respond in these general ways.
- Increase standardization practices - Most flight schools are set up with standardization practices that are mainly geared around the safety of flights and training. In general, standardization is how flight schools help new instructors and pilots get up-to-speed with known practices that are for the particular flight school in a particular geographic location. With an increase in general aviation accidents, in order to mitigate the risk to themselves, particularly if they are flying aircraft that are mostly involved in some of these accidents, then schools will modify or improve their standardization practices.
- Improve standard operating procedures (SOPs) - Similar to standardization, the SOP allows for standard practice, but throughout the daily operations of the flight school. If there’s an increase in accidents, flight schools generally want to incorporate anything that is relevant to their aircraft, their personnel, their flight school, and their geographic location into their SOP. This way they can further mitigate operational risk associated with those accidents.
- Dealing with insurance - Flight schools, particularly medium size to large flight schools can negotiate premiums with their insurance providers. We believe that even with an increased premium across-the-board in the general community, flight schools with good relationships with their insurance provider may be able to show through their standardization practices, and improved SOP that they are not a risk to their insurance provider, and can subsequently keep their insurance premium down. A caveat here, however, is If the particular flight school is the one involved in the accident, then it’s very difficult to negotiate away an increase in premium.
In sum, while a flight school will be impacted by what happens in a general aviation community and more so by what happens in the pilot training segment As it relates to general aviation accidents, they are not completely helpless in how to respond and mitigate some of the negative effects.
From this article, it can be seen that perception is not reality. What is perceived to be an increase in general aviation accidents, based on the data, the real number of accidents across the general aviation space has been declining over the past three years. However, what is also true is that perception can drive policy with a private or public policy, and it is this perception that we must work to control. We have seen that regulations, private individual and business practices, and even insurance premiums can change based on mere perception. It is clear that the general aviation community has done a wonderful job in putting out factual and accurate information about what’s going on in the community in general, and about general aviation accidents in particular. Yet, the challenge remains. How do we as pilots, aircraft owners and operators, and flight training institutions help to counteract the not-so-accurate perception of the public of the community itself as it relates to general aviation accidents? Unfortunately, that is not something that one author can think of in a single article, it takes a community effort. The good thing is that that effort is underway.
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