Regulating in the Public Interest
    Category: Column By : James Kallman Read : 1023 Date : Monday, June 09, 2014 - 07:56:33

    This year marks the centenary of the world’s first commercial flight, former St. Petersburg mayor Abraham Pheil paying $400 (over $5,000 in today’s money) at auction to occupy the second seat onboard the Benoist XIV two-seater piloted by Tony Jannus for the 23-minute spin across the 21 miles of bay waters that separate the U.S. cities of St. Petersburg and Tampa.

    We’ve come a long way in 100 years. Some 3.1 billion passengers made use of global air transport networks in 2013—which translates to over 90,000 aircraft takeoffs every single day, according to preliminary figures released by the International Civil Aviation Authority in December. Yet while there are currently around 22,000 commercial passenger jets in operation that is but a fraction of the total number of aircraft taking to the skies. The General Aviation Manufacturers Association reports that there are more than 360,000 general aviation aircraft worldwide, ranging from two-seater training aircraft and utility helicopters right up to intercontinental business jets. And that doesn’t even include military aircraft.

    The skies are likely to grow increasingly crowded with the demand for aircraft still rising, particularly in Asia. Some forecasts suggest that by 2030 as many as 40,000 commercial jets will be plying the passenger routes. More aircraft means more pilots, and over just the next seven years airlines could be looking for a further 235,000 to cope with expansion and natural replacement of today’s 150,000 or so.

    While the majority of pilots gain their wings flying general aviation aircraft, training to become an airline pilot is not cheap, as much as £90,000. As internationally renowned CTC Aviation Training remarks, that’s plenty of money, but within five to six years of service an airline caption can be earning more than that in annual pay.

    Yet it’s not all peaches and cream, for being an airline pilot is ranked only behind military personnel and firefighters as the most stressful job in the U.S. Reaction to stress can manifest itself in many ways and historically flight crews have often turned to alcohol. However, prolonged exposure can also lead to major mental health problems.

    Quarterly statistics released by the U.K. Ministry of Defense for the periods January 2007 to December 2013 reveal that around 5% of Royal Air Force personnel were assessed with a mental disorder. These were not necessarily all pilots, of course, nor were the severity of the disorders revealed. However, while these figures compare favorably with the generally accepted 20% to 25% of the general population who have similar problems each year, the figures do reveal that even strict selection criteria cannot reduce this threat to zero.

    While airlines would understandably be reluctant to openly publish such figures, international agreement could demand that regular testing and releasing such data be required for holding an operating license. After all, governments already regulate many things claimed to be in the public interest. Surely, regulating for the safety of their citizens falls under this category. Sadly, the passengers of flight MH 370 like those of Egypt Air 990 and Silk Air 185 before them aren’t around to give us their opinion.