I know that general-aviation flight is much more dangerous than airline flight. Is this because of the planes or the pilots? If an airline pilot is flying a Cessna 172, is that Cessna as safe as an airliner?

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    $\begingroup$ One of the certification requirements for an airliner is that it must be able to suffer an engine failure at V1 with maximum takeoff weight and still safely take off, establish a positive rate of climb and clear an obstacle with one engine out. How's your Cessna 172 comparing to that? $\endgroup$ Jan 11, 2023 at 19:51
  • $\begingroup$ The post is not asking for a comparison of risk of airliners vs 172s. It's asking if there's any safety benefit of having an extremely overqualified pilot on board. I'm saying the benefit is negligible. When you filter out crashes from overweight takeoffs, incompetent maintenance or preparation, and weather, good pilot on a sunny day with enough gas, you end up with something that's really not very dangerous. $\endgroup$
    – John K
    Jan 11, 2023 at 21:02
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    $\begingroup$ There's a lot of levels of skill and experience in "airline pilot". A 747 pilot who hasn't flown a small single-engine plane in 25 years is very likely to be dangerous in one. A pilot who flies C208s for FedEx every day is going to be far better. $\endgroup$
    – user71659
    Jan 11, 2023 at 21:46
  • $\begingroup$ We have to be really careful about selection-bias comparisons because they almost always mislead us to false conclusions. If we cherry pick one guy who died wearing a seat belt, and one guy who survived not wearing one, we can prove seat belts don’t work. But over a larger sample size we’d be profoundly wrong. If I could hand-pick the best 172 pilot I know, would I choose them to fly with me on my top-secret, highs-risk 172 mission? Yes. If I had to wear a blindfold and randomly choose any 172 pilot and any ATP, as long as they had a recent 172 checkout, I would choose the latter. $\endgroup$
    – Max R
    Jan 11, 2023 at 23:47

1 Answer 1


There’s no doubt that the majority of general aviation accidents can be attributed to some human element and are not simply an unexpected failure of a system component.

But there’s several reasons I would suggest that there’s still a greater risk.

  • Redundancy of systems and robustness of systems in an airliner more than offsets the risk of the systems complexity the airliner brings.

  • Turbine engines are more reliable than piston engines. A large jet engine can take $10 billion to develop over a 10-15 year period, and easily cost millions or tens of millions each, so jet engines aren’t exactly fighting fair with pistons, LOL.

  • Speaking of engines, there’s always more than one of them on an airliner.

  • Systems like anti-icing are quite common on an airliner and rare on 172-class airplanes.

  • An airliner is crewed, and I don’t just mean in the air. The dispatchers are part of the crew. The operations center is part of the crew. Systems specialists, weather specialists, etc. are all part of the system. At an airline, How many people are involved in making the wether go/no-go decision? It’s not one. How many people are involved in getting and verifying the right amount and quality of fuel got loaded onto the airplane? It’s not one.

  • Engine analysis in a modern jet is absurd. The airline, and the engine manufacturer, receive telemetric data in real time about the performance of the engine, so any temperature anomaly or vibration is reported.

  • An airliner is well equipped from an excess power and ceiling perspective to move quickly through or out of adverse conditions like icing or avoid weather. A 172 flies through an atmosphere that airliners only pass through momentarily.

  • Speaking of the airspace used, many airliners will spend almost their entire life in radar coverage flying on an IFR flight plan.

  • The systems automation in a typical airliner of today means that a flight control computer, an engine control computer, and augmented stability systems sit between the pilot’s input’s and the airplane itself. For instance, an airliner may have engineered into its flight controls the ability to manage a critical-engine-out throttle and rudder inputs, where a light twin pilot has to manage all that themselves.

We could keep going. With a whiteboard and a few minutes we could brainstorm our way to another 5, 10, or 20 factors that tend to make airliners safer than GA aircraft.

But to me, it really comes down to how every decision is managed by multiple people (some not even on the plane) through the lens of a rigorous, disciplined process, supported by robust systems.

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    $\begingroup$ This is a very good answer, but the question asks about the benefits of a better pilot, not of a better machine 🖖 $\endgroup$
    – sophit
    Jan 11, 2023 at 21:36
  • $\begingroup$ @sophit It does answer my question. It could be summarized as "No, a Cessna 172 flown by an airline pilot is not as safe as an airliner flown by the same pilot." The rest is just listing reasons why. $\endgroup$
    – Someone
    Jan 11, 2023 at 22:57
  • $\begingroup$ @Sophit, actually not. If you read the question, it is about whether the improved safety record of airlines transfers with the pilot, or whether there are other ingredients besides the pilot’s experience. $\endgroup$
    – Max R
    Jan 11, 2023 at 23:08
  • $\begingroup$ @Someone: ok. It would have been anyway interesting to know if a professional pilot had reacted in a different way in respect to a Cessna pilot to the same machine problem. For example: would a professional pilot foresee an icing problem? Would a professional pilot react differently to an OEI case? And so on. I know for sure that the other way around applied in the past, where (apparently) jetliner pilots were helped by their glider skills to better manage an incident. Anyway both +1 $\endgroup$
    – sophit
    Jan 11, 2023 at 23:14
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    $\begingroup$ @tedder42 Back at the time, the Rolls Royce engine messages sent over ACARS were a big deal in the news. But after more analysis it appeared the ACARS system was manually switched off, which led to increased speculation of an intentional act. Since MH370, the frequency of ACARS messages has been increased, and can now be transmitted over a wider array of satellite services. Forbes has written quite a bit about it. forbes.com/sites/johngoglia/2014/03/13/… $\endgroup$
    – Max R
    Jan 12, 2023 at 5:14

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