When airline pilots sound like, well, highway pilots

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Germanwings crash 2nd black box

With French media reporting apparent location of the second “black box” from the GermanWings flight that crashed in the French alps last week, I thought I’d share some reporting you’ll be interested in — if you haven’t seen it already.

During MATS last week, as news of the awful apparent mass murder-suicide got around the news networks, the conversations from TV talking heads I managed to find time to hear struck some familiar chords. By the end of the week, TV commentators were chattering on about pilot medical certification, which requires more frequent physicals than what most truckers are used to (every six months, as a general rule).

What happens for pilots, though, does in some ways resemble the nature of driver medical certification, particularly when explained frankly — chiefly the often “adversarial” nature of the process, to use one pilot’s words to describe required physicals when the very ability to work is on the line.

That brings me to James Fallows’ couple stories’ worth of dissections of a variety of related issues via pilot commentaries, published in the Atlantic within the past week or so. Comparisons between U.S. trucking and international air travel are of course far from exact. Nonetheless, here’s a couple excerpts that I think will strike some of the same familiar chords for you that they struck in me.

An incentive for pilots “to cheat themselves” in medical certification, as one of Fallows’ pilots calls it: The system gives pilots an incentive to cheat themselves out of the best quality of care. Any arrangement that promotes an adversarial relationship between doctor and patient compromises medicine” and, for a select few pilots, encourages withholding of information from the examining physician.

Financial/pilot-demand pressure has led to more inexperience in the cockpit, particularly among non-U.S. airlines [where entry standards require much less than U.S. regs in terms of minimum flight hours, according to Fallows’ story]: “There is a national and international shortage of commercial pilots resulting in the lowering of standards in employment and certification, particularly among foreign carriers. It is also why there is increasing reliance on automation in aircraft design, particularly in the Airbus philosophy of restricting pilots from overriding the autopilot to enhance sales.”

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We’re all indirectly culpable? Fallows leads his first piece on the subject with a quote from pilot Adam Shaw that pretty well also describes the macro-economic situation that has driven so much of the transportation world down the precarious path that attempts to be an effective bridge between the concerns of safety and, well, profit. “When people start looking for whom to blame, the answer is simple: Joe-six-pack who wanted a $99 flight from New York to L.A.”

The links above are to Fallows’ first story on the subject, which he followed a day or two later with this second one. Both are well worth a read.