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A Pilot's Perspective on Aviation Risk

A Pilot’s Perspective on Aviation Risk

By , Chief Underwriting Officer, Global Aerospace

For thousands of years, humans have dreamed of and pursued flight, with varying success. As a pilot and an underwriter, I can relate to the desire to break the bonds of Earth as well as the risks that come with flying.

In Greek mythology, Icarus and his father Daedalus used wings made of feathers and wax to escape imprisonment on the island of Crete. Icarus becomes exhilarated and ignores his father’s admonitions not to fly too high or too low, and fatally crashes into the sea. Icarus overlooked the risks.

Flying is indeed an adrenaline rush, but it also serves as a useful analog for assessing and managing risk. What could be at once riskier – and more rewarding – than getting thousands of feet off the ground and safely landing? Flying safely requires careful planning. As pilots are trained to do, they inspect both their plane and their plan. It’s a good practice for any organization.

I have been around aviation my whole life, so I was naturally interested in becoming a pilot. My father was an aerospace engineer who helped develop the Saturn V rocket, which launched the lunar missions in the 1960s. Many of my relatives were pilots or in the aviation industry. Being able to combine my love of flying with my long career in insurance and risk management is a dream come true.

Understanding what’s going on, in the cockpit and on the ground, is critical for aviators as well as the underwriters that insure them. I’m proud that most of XL Group’s aviation underwriters are pilots themselves, with commercial or military experience, or have worked as aviation mechanics. That experience gives them a distinct advantage in assessing risks arising from airlines to aviation product manufacturers to general aviation.

When they look at risks to underwrite – or decline – our aviation team applies their firsthand knowledge. Here are some of the ways our team thinks about aviation risk.

Aviation risks
Many people are afraid of flying, but the fact is, commercial flight is safer today than virtually all other modes of transportation combined.

According to the International Air Transport Association, in 2013 there were 36.4 million commercial flights, carrying more than 3.1 billion passengers. Yet the number of fatalities in 2013 from aviation accidents was only 210.

Flying is safer today for pilots and passengers. IATA reported that the rate of accidents involving any type of aircraft in 2013 was 1.57 per million flights, and only 1.49 per million flights when averaged from 2009 through 2013.

When we look at airline risks, there are different tiers. For example, airline fleets are different; some have wide-body jets while others have smaller and regional jets. Fleet values can range widely, too. For example, the Airbus A380 and Boeing 777 are very high-value aircraft, while a Boeing 737 or McDonnell Douglas MD-88 costs significantly less.

We also look at passenger-revenue miles, the geographic locations airlines serve and loss history. Historical losses we consider include accidents as well as attritional losses, or incidental damage such as “hangar rash” or bumped wing tips.

In general aviation, a significant risk factor is the pilot’s experience with the type of aircraft he or she is flying, as well as the area where the aircraft is flown. For example, a private pilot operating in Iowa is a different sort of risk from that same pilot flying in the crowded airspace over New York or New Jersey.

A key question for all our underwriters when it comes to assessing aviation risks is “Would I get in this plane with this pilot?”

I flew about 150,000 miles last year as a passenger. That gives me less time to sit in the cockpit as a pilot, but still a lot of time to think about aviation risks.

Always think ahead
One of the things that businesses everywhere can learn from pilots is contingency planning. When you fly a plane, you always have to be thinking ahead. “What would I do if…X…happened?” is a question every pilot asks himself or herself. Flight plans, much like business plans, require thoughtful answers to questions such as:

  1. What is the destination?
  2. There is a predetermined landing spot, but what are the alternatives if weather conditions change?
  3. Based on fuel consumption and airspeed, can you reach where you intend to go?
  4. Should you proceed with your planned takeoff or delay it?

A good pilot always stays ahead of the airplane by thinking about what to do if various scenarios happen. Anticipating and planning for those possibilities facilitates appropriate responses.

As in any industry, accidents and mishaps do occur. I’ve been on board planes that lost power, aborted takeoff due to an equipment malfunction or damaged a wheel during landing. Fortunately, those did not have serious consequences.

When incidents happen inflight, usually there is a series of issues rather than any one thing that goes wrong.

Pilots today have some of the most advanced technology ever developed, with automated systems that handle most functions on board, but they still have to rely on their training and fly the plane.

Businesses must do the same. Technology can help keep executives informed and make better decisions, but they still need to run their organizations well to navigate unpredictable market conditions, respond to risks and reach their desired destination.

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AXA XL is the P&C and specialty risk division of AXA.