Chris Blythe: Why we're still stuck on the runway

21 December 2016

They say you always know you are getting old when police officers appear so young. I think that reference has shifted a bit for me now.

There was a well-publicised story last year of EasyJet’s youngest female captain, aged 26. Next to her in the photo was her co-pilot, a very personable looking young man, all of 19 years old. When the combined ages of the people up front are about three quarters of mine, I am not ashamed to admit I feel a bit concerned, but if you are good enough you are old enough and that should be that.

I have always liked my aircrew to have grey hair, I suppose I equated that with experience. The false belief is that someone older, more experienced will be better able to cope with emergencies. But as one grey-haired pilot told me, in 25 years the worst emergency he had to deal with in flight was the inability to make hot drinks.

Aviation and construction have a number of things in common. Women account for 6% of UK aircrew, much the same as are in the main construction professions. The rate of growth of female pilots, though, is greater.

The global demographic profile of aviation is similar to construction with experienced aircrew due to retire soon as the baby boomers work their way through the system.

Are there any lessons we can learn from aviation? For a start aviation has become more risk-based than absolutist. 40 years ago you needed 20/20 vision, now you need correctable vision. Some medical conditions are acceptable now where previously they were not. Technology such as GPS has allowed more aircraft to fly in the same airspace. And new forms of pilot licencing and training are being established with some only being trained to be part of a multi-pilot crew, not necessarily as captain.

We can learn lessons. We need new types of qualifications, more suited to the modern jobs in the industry. We need to make some significant innovations that increase our capacity to build more and better and we need to get rid of anything that falsely passes as standards but in closer scrutiny is just protectionism and BS.

Shifting the mindset is difficult. Construction still has a long way to go with respect to diversity. I still hear of overt sexism and homophobia in the industry. I am sure someone good enough to be a 26-year-old captain for Easyjet could be a real star in construction – given the chance.


Excellent comment but misses the big difference between aviation and construction: Aircraft manufacturers control the design of their own products.

colin harding, 22 December 2016

Aircraft manufacturers work very closely and collaboratively with their suppliers and customers to provide a product that has to work every time. If planes had as many faults and as poor documentation as new buildings they would be falling out the sky daily. It's a cultural and regulation thing - the construction industry can either lift its game or be dragged out of the 19th century and into the 21st.

Paul Akhurst, 5 January 2017

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