After my last posting about the Redbird experiment with $1 avgas to see if cost is really the big drag on GA a longtime reader sent me an email saying cost isn’t the problem, it’s safety.
This thoughtful fellow knows many people who have the resources and the travel requirements to be perfect candidates for owning and flying their own airplanes. But the risk in GA is keeping them from even considering learning to fly. Or more typically, the perception of risk by a family member is the barrier to becoming a pilot.
I am sure he is correct because I know people who feel the same. I bet you do to.
To those of us already involved in private aviation issues like high cost, complexity, changing rules, airport restrictions and so on are the big issues. Those are our biggest concerns because we have resolved the issue of safety to our own satisfaction. For a person who is already a pilot safety just doesn’t enter the calculation. The high cost of fuel can keep a pilot from flying as much as he would otherwise, but has no effect on the person who believes GA is just too risky.
Is there anything those of us who are already in the GA club can do about this?
Obviously, improvement in private flying safety is essential. Our world overall has simply become less risky. Highway fatalities have been cut dramatically. Workplace accidents that were so common 50 or 60 years ago are now rare. Just about everything we use in normal life from a lawn mower to a coffee maker carries less risk than it did before.
We can decry the “nanny state” and the impact of trial lawyers putting warning labels on everything, but the trend is clear. Our society expects activities of just about any sort to be safer than they were even a few years ago. GA safety improvement hasn’t kept up. We do need to do better.
But I think there is a model for GA to look to that demonstrates risk elimination isn’t the only path to success, and that is motorcycle riders. The number of motorcycle riders isn’t exactly booming, but the industry did slow or even stop a decline in the number of riders, and with the economy improving, so are motorcycle sales.
Clearly a motorcyclist accepts a higher level of risk than a driver. I can’t articulate the reasons people ride motorcycles, but safety cannot be the number one priority, or even high on the list. In fact, many motorcyclist actually want to assume at least some level of additional risk by not wearing a helmet, or at least not being required to wear a helmet.
I don’t know any biker who expects to be in a serious accident, or even a skin scraping minor one for that matter. And I don’t know a pilot who expects to crash. Both groups know it can happen, and almost certainly know someone who has had an accident. But we pilots and bikers have made the personal risk-reward tradeoff to suit ourselves and have accepted the risk.
Some level of risk for the person who just wants to fly their own airplane is acceptable to a pilot. But that same risk level is not acceptable to a person who wants to travel from A to B with speed, comfort and the convenience of going on your own schedule.
Cirrus understands that the traveler will not always accept the same level of risk as the GA pilot and that’s why the whole airplane parachute has been successful. People—most frequently spouses—who would not consider traveling in a GA airplane without a chute agree that the chute provides enough obvious, understandable, and reliable backup that the risk becomes acceptable.
The way I see it we have two safety concerns in GA, and they are not the same. For the person who just wants to fly for the challenge and freedom of it we need to reach a level of risk that keeps that person’s family, friends and loved ones from scotching the idea. But for the person who wants to travel conveniently on their own schedule in a private airplane we need to offer much lower risk than we now have in GA.
In either case the perceived safety of GA flying is an impediment to growth in the number of pilots, sales of airplanes and hours flown. Is refusal to accept the risk a bigger problem for GA than costs or regulation? I don’t know. But I am sure that without safety improvements it will be ever harder to attract people to our favorite activity.