Alaska commuter pilots tell researcher they're pressured to fly

Posted: Tuesday, January 22, 2002

FAIRBANKS (AP) -- Pilots for small air carriers in Alaska say they are pressured to fly under unsafe conditions and that companies with crash records have poorer safety practices, according to two recently published studies.

The Flight Safety Digest published the studies in its November-December edition. The digest is the publication of the nonprofit Flight Safety Foundation, which describes itself as a ''neutral clearinghouse to disseminate objective safety information.''

One study was authored by Colleen Mondor of Fairbanks, a licensed private pilot who once worked in operations for a local air carrier. She interviewed 100 pilots from small companies around the state and wrote her study while obtaining a master's degree at the University of Alaska Fairbanks in 1999.

''Eighty-two pilots said they had been pressured by their companies or had direct knowledge of other pilots who had been pressured by their companies to fly,'' Mondor wrote.

Companies were not the only source of pressure.

''Seventy-three pilots said that passenger pressure can affect their decision-making and could have a negative impact on flight safety,'' Mondor wrote.

The pilots succumbed to pressure, despite overweight aircraft or poor weather conditions, for several reasons. Ego, a desire to help the company, worries about keeping the job, and competition among pilots were the most significant reasons, Mondor reported.

Alaska's aviation safety record has come under greater scrutiny in recent years. From 1982 to 2000, 29 percent of the accidents among the nation's commuter and on-demand air carriers occurred in Alaska, Mondor reported. From 1987 to 1997, she said, 77 percent of those accidents were attributed to pilot error.

Mondor said her study was unique because it was unconnected to the Federal Aviation Administration, of which many pilots are suspicious. As a fellow pilot, she had an extra edge.

''If they didn't know me personally, they knew where I worked. They came to me feeling safe and secure,'' she said. ''I guaranteed them anonymity.''

The other study was conducted by the FAA using surveys, but Mondor said it suffered from a low response rate. Out of 3,237 distributed, 491 were returned.

The authors of that study, who work for FAA Civil Aerospace Medical Institute in Oklahoma City, looked at pilot perceptions among Alaska companies that have had ''controlled flights into terrain.''

The data indicate that pilots working for companies with crash records rated their company practices lower than did pilots working for companies without crash records.

''In the event that CFIT companies create a more positive safety climate and improve their safety practices, it is likely that they also will reduce their risk of CFIT accidents,'' the authors said.

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