How safe is business aviation?


It would be easy to assume that the service and safety on board a business jet is far superior to that of a budget commercial airline. But despite the greater costs of flying privately, this is not always the case.

Based on the popular mantra ‘you get what you pay for,’ it would be easy to assume that the service and indeed the safety on board a business jet is far superior to that of a budget commercial airline. But despite the greater costs of flying privately, this is not always the case.

In 2009, the UK Civil Aviation Authority pulished a paper on business jet safety, which showed that between 2000 and 2007, the rate of fatal accidents involving large Western-built jets was approximately 0.2% per million miles flown. In contrast, the estimated fatal accident rate for all civil operated business jets across the same period was almost ten times as much, at 1.7% worldwide.

Horrendous figures

“The numbers are horrendous,” says one aircraft manager who asked to remain anonymous. “Aircraft operations do not want to admit that there is an issue, but if you look at the statistics, they tell a story.”

Chris Buchholz, CEO at operator Hongkong Jet, is not so sure. “It really depends on what numbers you are looking at,” he says. “I am not here to disagree. What I am suggesting is that it depends what part of business aviation you look at.”

Buchholz has delivered presentations over the world on the importance of maintaining safety management systems within the corporate aviation industry. “If you look at operators that hire a lot of ex-airline pilots, then I do not think there is a difference between a business jet operator and an airline, but I think in some parts of the world, you have a big difference,” he says. “You look at the US; there are some really good operators, and then there are some that are very relaxed in terms of their standards.”

According to data from US-based accident analyst Robert Breiling, there were 57 accidents involving US-registered business jets and turboprop operations in 2011. In 13 of these accidents, people died (the UK CAA reported the global total as 16). This was an increase on the 48 which were recorded in 2010, with 7 of them fatal (12, according to the CAA). And in the first three months of 2012 alone, business jets were involved in three fatal accidents; two of which occurred after the pilot overshot the runaway during landing.

“It is a bit miseading” says one corporate pilot. “Breiling says the fatal accident rate for US business jets, from 2005 to 2009, was 0.09 per 100,000 hours. This includes single-pilot jets, non-professionally flown jets, empty legs, and all manner of flight. The rate for part 91 professionally flown aircraft is much lower.”

“People are amazed to realise that there has not been a major US airline fatal accident since late 2001,” he adds. “Business jets fly to an extremely wide variety of airports, on all sorts of missions. If you study the professionally flown part 91 jet operations, you will find that we are very close behind those statistics.”

Gradual improvement

Although some of the data may look worrying, there is evidence that the safety of business jets is improving. The UK CAA reported that the rate of fatal accidents involving business jets was one per 600 aircraft throughout the 90s. This was improved to one per 900 aircraft throughout the 00s, and it slipped further still in 2011, with the rate of fatal accidents reduced to one in 5,000 aircraft, making it the safest year ever for business jets, according to data from UK based aviation information company Ascend.

Robert Breiling claims that the main causes for these types of accidents are “human error, reoccurring maintenance or mechanical malfunctions.” They also argue that the 2,790 fatalities involving business jets and US business turboprops, which had happened up until 2012 “may have been prevented if knowledge of prior accident causes were known.”

“We have this belief that we, as an industry, are very safe, and I do not know why,” says the aircraft manager. “An air force would not survive if it thought like that, because it would kill large numbers of people by making silly mistakes.”

Building on from their findings in 2009, the UK CAA published a safety plan for the aviation industry, covering 2011 through to 2013. “The Business Aviation sector by its very scope and diversity of operations is different to commercial air transport and as a result there are specific challenges to be acknowledged,” the document outlined. “Thus the Business Aviation Safety Partnership was established not because Business Aviation is deemed unsafe but because it was recognised that a more ‘tailored approach’ to this sector was warranted.”

“For the past couple of years, we have been working with a number of organisations,” says spokesman Jonathan Nicholson. “Something we are doing now and for the next couple of years, is working to identify what we think really needs tackling. Business jet companies have certainly been involved with that.”

Nicholson is keen to stress that the CAA has received plenty of cooperation from private operators, but when asked whether the corporate aviation industry is willing to admit that the risks are greater than those associated with commercial operators, his answer is measured. “I think there is an acknowledgement that there is a difference,” he says. “But different types of operations can bring different types of risk.”

Range of standards

Something that Buchholz and the anonymous aircraft manager both agree on is that there is a large gap between the varying standards of different operators, and the quality of their pilots. “I think the range of standards is too wide,” says Buchholz. “Business operators are at their best when they combine the structure and training requirements of airlines, whilst still retaining what I would argue is a superior cabin service.”

Whereas airline pilots are subjected to continuous scrutiny throughout their careers, the anonymous aircraft manager argues that business jet pilots deal with little more than “getting pushed through a sausage machine once a year.” He also believes that the recruitment process is driven by contacts and ego, rather than an assessment of actual ability. At the worst, this can result in the appointment of a pilot who lacks the required skill set. “Most people are appointed because the boss likes their face,” he says. “Many will not employ pilots who are more experienced, or are as experienced as themselves, because they do not want the threat to their status.”

Without a rigid set of standards imposed upon business jet operators, Buchholz would like to see operators adopting the requirements of the safety management systems he deals with on a day-to-day basis. “I would put my Mother on the back of my plane any day of the week,” he says confidently. “The only way to run an aviation business is to put safety first, and everything else should be a long-term derivative of that dedication to safety.”