Poor Pilot Screening: The Real Fear of Flying
volume 2 number 3
For years, economists have been predicting that the United States would experience a shortage of competent employees by the end of the century. To begin with, there may be as many as 5 million fewer entry-level workers in the 1990s than in the previous decade. Nowhere is this "talent crunch" more apparent than in the airline industry, where burgeoning regional and commuter airlines knowingly hire inexperienced, poorly-trained, and negligent pilots to fly their planes. Since 1987, seven fatal crashes, killing a total of 111 people, have been directly linked to pilots with documented histories of reckless behavior or poor performance. Some short comings went undetected while others were ignored in the selection process.
Experts predict that the shortage of top pilots will only grow worse over the next fifteen years. At one time, the military trained 90% of all United States airline pilots. Testing was rigorous and poor performers were quickly weeded out. Now, however, the military trains fewer pilots and holds on longer to those it does. Regional airlines, in particular, are increasingly forced to rely on graduates of civilian flight schools, many of whom have half the experience of pilots hired by major airlines.
To make matters worse, hiring standards at regionals are sometimes dangerously low. Applicant reference checks, for instance, may be nonexistent. More alarming is the fact that airlines have been known to look the other way when the credentials of their pilots were called into question. Even FAA examiners don't always pass muster. Since May 1995, the FAA has suspended or revoked the licenses of twelve examiners for giving out phony certificates.
Ultimately, though, the problem winds up on the doorstep of the airlines themselves. Unwilling to lose the lucrative commuter market, and faced with a shrinking pool of qualified applicants, small airlines seem to have instituted a "don't ask, don't tell policy," apparently in the mistaken belief that what they don't know about their pilots can't hurt us. The deaths of 111 people have proved them wrong. Clearly, there is an urgent need for more rigorous screening and Effective Interviewing!® of pilot applicants. But, the airline industry is not the only business where customer safety is directly related to reference checks and performance standards. Engineering, construction, and environmental health industries, to name a few, also can affect our lives. All require better interviewing and selection.