What Airline Pilots Can Teach Us About Reforming the Meritocracy

Unlike most professions, they aren't admitted based on a high-stakes test. Instead, they must prove themselves proficient in specific tasks.

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The ongoing conversation about America's meritocracy and its failings shouldn't end without a look back at a 1985 story by James Fallows, who beat us all to so many important subjects. "The Case Against Credentialism" is an article too sprawling to summarize and well worth reading in full, but there's a particular thread running through it that I'd like to highlight. Noting the popularity of law firms, investment banks, and management consulting among college graduates, Fallows lamented the fact that "the professions" were increasingly using IQ or other standardized assessments of general intelligence to choose the people who'd be admitted to their ranks.

What I love about the following passage is that draws on an occupation with which we're all familiar and generally trust -- airline pilots -- to demonstrate how differently many of our professions could be run.

Wrote Fallows:

IT IS POSSIBLE TO COMBINE THAT BASIC DESIRE FOR IMPROVEMENT and upward mobility with standards that ensure high performance? Can a society be both efficient and open? One of the most successful, and least credentialed, assessment procedures suggests that it is.

Among lawyers, accountants, and M.B.A.'s incompetence may be a nuisance, but in airline pilots it is a catastrophe. In the early days of commercial flight the airlines bore the responsibility for training and certifying their pilots, but they soon begged for government regulation, so as to spread the responsibility when crashes occurred. Like the licensing procedures for doctors, lawyers, and engineers, these standards were supposed to protect the public from incompetence, but they were of a very different nature from those of the professional guilds.

The pilot-licensing system was built on the premise that competence was divisible: people can be good at one thing without being being good at others, and they should be allowed to do only what they have mastered. As opposed to receiving a blanket license, the way members of other professions do, pilots must work their way up through four certificate levels, from student to air-transport pilot, and be specifically qualified on each kind of aircraft they want to fly. What's more, a pilot must demonstrate at regular intervals that he is still competent. To keep his license a pilot must take a review flight with an instructor every two years, and the pilots for commercial airlines must pass a battery of re-qualification tests every six months.

"A small but regular percentage is washed out each time," John Mazor, of the Air Line Pilots Association, says. It is reassuring to know they are gone, but what about their tenured counterparts in the other professions?

The results of this licensing scheme are a high level of proficiency and a profession more open socially than the rest. Most pilots of big jets learned to fly in the military, since that is the least expensive way to put in the 1,500 hours of flight time necessary for an air-transport license. But the remainder slowly worked their way up, putting in flight time on their own or working for small air-taxi outfits until they could move to the next level of licensure. Imagine what other professions would be like if they operated this way. The sociologist Randall Collins's prescription for medical training follows a similar pattern:

"All medical careers would begin with a position as orderly, which would be transformed into the first stage of a possible apprenticeship for physicians. After a given number of years, successful candidates could leave for a few years of medical school (2 years seems sufficient background for most practitioners...) and then return to the hospital for advanced apprenticeship training of the sort now given in internship and residency programs. ... Advanced specialties could continue to be taught as they now are -- through further on-the-job training; only medical researchers would be involved in lengthy schooling."

It is, at minimum, a provocative thought experiment, and it seems plausible that it might draw on the talents of far more Americans than the status quo. There are, after all, plenty of tasks that doctors perform that don't actually require someone capable of earning a very high score on the MCAT. The same goes for lawyers and the LSAT. Maybe some of the economic gains that the "cognitive elite" have made compared to the rest of American society are actually just the fruits of professional cartels. 

The rest of Fallows' piece -- and a far more sophisticated version of this argument -- can be read here.