A Million Reports, Accidents & Demographics

By Scott Spangler on April 29th, 2012

On April 24, the e-mail edition of Callback arrived in my in box. It proudly announced that the NASA Aviation Safety Reporting System had processed its one millionth safety incident report on March 21, 2012. Three days later I received the NTSB release addressing 2011’s preliminary stats, No Fatalities On U.S. Airlines or Commuters, General Aviation Accidents Increased.

ASRS IntakeSafety is the only direct relationship between the coincidental announcements.

After reading the 2011 stats, there appeared to be no significant reason for alarms. The increases were small, just 50 more accidents for all of civil aviation, with total fatalities up just 12, and on-demand Part 135 ops and GA were responsible for the the bulk of them. Given the small numbers, they are the margin of error that nothing will eliminate.

Digging into the ASRS numbers, and who made the reports, proved far more interesting. NASA started counting them in April 1976, and reached 1 million a month short of 36 years later. Using simple math, that’s 27,778 a year, 2,315 a month, 579 a week, or 83 a day. This ASRS chart above shows how quickly pilots got on board with the program. But that’s not the surprise. It’s who made the reports, and the demographic changes in their numbers over three decades of pilot population shrinkage.

ASRS breakdown

As this ASRS chart shows, pilots make the majority of reports, with ATPs (light blue) outnumbering GA pilots (dark blue) a guesstimated 3-to-1. This makes sense. Pilots who earn a living in the cockpit eagerly report unsafe situations they witnessed as a somehow-involved participant because, in most cases, their confidential reports will short-circuit certificate actions.

What surprised me is the number of ATPs in 1976 (when the total pilot population numbered 744,246) and 2010 (the latest FAA numbers, with a total of 627,388 pilots, a 16-percent decline). Back than, there were just 45, 072 ATPs in the United States. In 2010 there were 142,198, an increase of 215 percent.

Stepping down a certificate, the number of commercial pilots dropped 34 percent, from 187,801 to 123,705 in 2010. And the number of private pilots fell 35 percent, from 309,005 (nearly half the total pilot population) to 202,020 (roughly a third).

With the requirement that first officers hold an ATP, it won’t be long before these certificate holders are half or more of the total pilot population, and through attrition, the number of private pilots sinks into five figures. To me it seems another omen that the days of pilots who fly for fun and personal business are numbered.

Certainly, many airline pilots today fly for fun, once they’ve paid their dues (and student loans) and moved into the left seat (at what seems to be a shrinking number of airlines that pay pilots a decent wage). But what will aviation look like tomorrow, when the majority of the pilot population flies for a living? And will their employers pay them enough to enjoy the privilege of personal flight?

Ultimately, it will be interesting to see what affect this demographic change has on the GA accident rate—and the accumulation of ASRS reports—as the number of ATPs overtakes the number of private pilots.  –Scott Spangler

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