FORECAST: Pilot skills need to be updated

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During the past eight years, the system of counting airline accidents annually has ceased to be a useful predictor of future safety because nothing significant has happened to the numbers. A projection would show more of the same.

However, that is to ignore stresses that have been building in the industry gradually during the past two or three decades and which, if not mitigated, will lead to a world where airlines from mature economies face a return to accident numbers - if not rates - experienced in the 1970s and 1980s. This would be a shock for passengers as air travel in the developed world has become routine in people's minds, and safety has stopped being a consideration for those who purchase airline tickets.

Meanwhile, all predictions for air transport demand are for solid growth. Indeed air travel demand, despite the dire economic situation in mature Western economies, remains fairly buoyant. But this continual expansion has been unaccompanied by industry investment in specialist training, creating the single biggest source of stress the system faces: a shortage of pilots, maintenance engineers and instructors for both specialisations. Combine this with continued pressure on airline profits caused by excess capacity, plus high oil prices, and something has to give.

In the past 20 years, almost all the business, technical and operational ground rules governing commercial aviation have radically altered, forced by market changes, air traffic management, navigation, and aircraft and avionic technology. Logically, these demand a change in training - but that change has not been delivered. What has most affected pilots is the influence of low-cost carriers, bringing radical change to many airline relationships with flightcrew. But what has most changed crew recruiting and management is the decline of the military as a pilot skills provider.

Meanwhile, there has been a loss of pilot exposure to ­anything other than pre-packaged flight planning, followed by automated flight on the line. In unusual ­circumstances - non-standard or not automated - a lack of pilot resilience has led to fatal loss of control (LOC) accidents, making LOC the biggest killer category this century - taking over from controlled flight into terrain in the last.

This is acknowledged by industry bodies such as IATA and the International Civil Aviation Organisation, and their respective training and qualification initiatives. So carriers cannot say they have not been warned, but these efforts have not been translating into action. Just as a reminder, the number of fatalities caused by airline accidents in the 1980s was about 1,100 a year, whereas numbers now are less than 800 a year, despite revenue-passenger kilometres being three times larger. The industry could revert to the bad old days, but for a different reason: the aircraft are better, but the skills to operate them are degrading.