The Pilots of Our Roads? Recognising the Importance of Bus Drivers

Alistair Aitken | November 27, 2015

At this year’s UK Conference, I presented a session on ‘Happier, Safer Drivers’. In doing so, I thought it would be interesting to open the session by comparing the nation’s bus drivers to airline pilots, and asking why many in society perceive these roles so differently.

An unlikely comparison? Let’s see...

Photo of airplane cockpit
flickr | jbgeronimi

Working Demands

Airline pilots and bus drivers are both responsible for safely guiding a vehicle from A to B, and while it’s true of course that there is a distinct difference in destination type – pilots get to fly across the globe! – it is also true that they share some similar duties over the course of the journey.

This starts when the vehicles are waiting to be taken out from the terminal/depot onto the runway/road, and continues as the plane takes off and the bus picks up its first passengers, right until the plane lands and the bus reaches its final stop.

But of course, at this point there is a key difference: pilots will often have time to rest and recuperate before their next flight, while bus drivers might only have a two-minute turnaround before they have to start the entire process again.

Precious Cargo

Pilots and drivers are both responsible for transporting the most precious of cargo: human beings. And while airline pilots (depending on the size of the plane) may carry more passengers, the fundamental concern – for the wellbeing of those on board – remains the same in each instance.

However, there’s another interesting difference here, because while airline pilots can rely on cabin crew to assist passengers and assure their safety; bus drivers must do this entirely on their own – though hopefully with assistance from their traffic office, and technology such as CCTV.

Environment & Decision Making

Whether in a bus or on a plane, decisions have the potential for disaster. Even the best precautionary measures, industry practices and training will never entirely eliminate accidents – and there will always be factors outside the control of those operating the vehicle.

Clearly, both bus drivers and airline pilots must make critical decisions – decisions that directly influence how successful, and of course safe – these journeys are. When issues arise it is vital that both are able to react quickly and effectively. Just think of the heroic bus driver who saved students as a bus was engulfed by flames; or the way Captain Sullenberger saved the passengers of flight 1549 by crash-landing in the Hudson River.

Thankfully such incidents represent exceptions to the fine safety records of both bus operators and airline companies, whose safety records stand as proof of their quality; but for the purposes of our comparison, let’s considering for a second the sheer number of decisions our bus drivers have to make.

Airline pilots of course take critical decisions at the start and end of their flights, but in the middle may face relatively few. Do our drivers face a more challenging environment? It is certainly true that they are rarely more than a few seconds from an important decision relating to an environmental factor that requires corrective action to avoid collision.

Working environment

Clearly pilots make countless critical decisions during take-off and landing – and they are supported in this by an appropriate working environment, which is generally calm, with few obstacles or distractions – and a co-pilot, off course.

By contrast, a driver’s working environment is often incredibly stressful, with road traffic congestion and hazards to be aware of. Drivers must also monitor passenger behaviour, direction of travel and schedule adherence. Impressively, they do all this on their own, retaining responsibility for everything that occurs on the bus, from fare collection to navigation, passenger safety and the vehicle’s condition.


Other than the previously mentioned human cargo, airplane pilots and bus drivers are also trusted to safely handle extremely expensive equipment. While planes may well cost hundreds of millions of pounds, modern buses are of course also phenomenally expensive – often way in excess of £100,000.

For bus drivers in particular, the responsibility for checking whether their vehicles are road worthy is a crucial one. Meanwhile, both pilots and drivers deserve praise for making constant decisions, day in and day out, which keep both buses and planes in great working condition – saving companies money.


Nobody would dispute the exceptional jobs that airline pilots do. But, as this short analysis outlines, our drivers also do phenomenal work to ensure our buses are safely and efficiently guided through our towns and cities.

So, is it time we recognised their efforts and accorded our drivers the respect they deserve?

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About Alistair Aitken

Alistair has worked within the UK passenger transport sector for over twenty years. In that time, he has worked in areas of emissions and revenue control, and software solutions. Alistair joined Trapeze in 2012 and remains enthusiastic and passionate about the role technology can play in supporting commercial bus operators in the public transport industry.