There were only two fatalities on commercial airplanes in the United States between 2010 and 2021. Yet in the face of a pilot shortage that is making air travel worse for the public, organized labor and politicians are fighting efforts to make it easier for pilots to get licensed.
Flying is by far the safest form of transportation, though it seems to make people the most nervous. On a per-mile basis, you are about 100 times more likely to die travelling by car.
Because they are so infrequent, airline tragedies make national news. But these incidents are very rare. The last major accident occurred almost 15 years ago, and the reaction to that catastrophe is contributing to today’s flying capacity crunch.
Colgan Air Flight 3407 stalled and crashed in New York state in February 2009, killing 50 people. The after-action report blamed pilot error, and Congress reacted by upping the number of flight hours required to get an Air Transport Pilot license from 250 to 1,500. (Notably, the pilot and first officer of Flight 3407 both had more than 1,500 flight hours of experience.)
There is little evidence that this increase in mandatory hours has made air travel safer. But it has hurt the businesses of smaller and regional carriers, while reducing the number of pilots available overall.
However, attempts to make it easier for pilots to meet these higher training requirements are getting pushback. A union for pilots vigorously fights against making it easier for pilots to get licensed, and so do some politicians. The union is just looking out for number one, as it represents pilots who have already met the requirement and benefit from limiting competition for their jobs. Politicians benefit if you think the rules they create make all the difference, and they go into scare-mongering mode whenever someone suggests relaxing these rules.
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