Sullenberger: Pay cuts driving out best pilots
Tuesday February 24, 11:57 am ET
By Joan Lowy and Michael J. Sniffen, Associated Press Writers
US Airways pilot Sullenberger says pay, benefit cuts are driving out experienced pilots
WASHINGTON (AP) -- The pilot who safely ditched a jetliner in New York's Hudson River said Tuesday that pay and benefit cuts are driving experienced pilots from careers in the cockpit.
US Airways pilot Chesley "Sully" Sullenberger told the House aviation subcommittee that his pay has been cut 40 percent in recent years and his pension has been terminated and replaced with a promise "worth pennies on the dollar" from the federally created Pension Benefit Guaranty Corp. These cuts followed a wave of airline bankruptcies after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks compounded by the current recession, he said.
"The bankruptcies were used to by some as a fishing expedition to get what they could not get in normal times," Sullenberger said of the airlines. He said the problems began with the deregulation of the industry in the 1970s.
The reduced compensation has placed "pilots and their families in an untenable financial situation," Sullenberger said. "I do not know a single, professional airline pilot who wants his or her children to follow in their footsteps."
The subcommittee of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee heard from the crew of Flight 1549, the air traffic controller who handled the flight and aviation experts to examine what safety lessons could be learned from the Jan. 15 accident which all 155 people aboard survived.
Sullenberger's copilot Jeffrey B. Skiles said unless federal laws are revised to improve labor-management relations "experienced crews in the cockpit will be a thing of the past." And Sullenberger added that without experienced pilots "we will see negative consequences to the flying public."
Sullenberger himself has started a consulting business to help make ends meet. Skiles added, "For the last six years, I have worked seven days a week between my two jobs just to maintain a middle class standard of living."
The air traffic controller who handled Flight 1549 said thought he was hearing a death sentence when Sullenberger radioed that he was ditching in the Hudson.
"I believed at that moment I was going to be the last person to talk to anyone on that plane alive," controller Patrick Harten testified in his first public description of his reactions to last month's miracle landing.
"People don't survive landings on the Hudson River. I thought it was his own death sentence," the 10-year veteran controller testified.
But Sullenberger safely glided the Airbus A320 into the river after it collided with birds and lost power in both engines.
Harten, who has spent his entire career at the radar facility in Westbury, N.Y., that handles air traffic within 40 miles of three major airports, struggled vainly to help get the airliner safely to a landing strip.
Making lightning-quick decisions, Harten communicated with 14 other entities in the three minutes after the bird strike as he diverted other aircraft and advised controllers elsewhere to hold aircraft and clear runways for 1549.
First, Harten tried to return the plane to LaGuardia Airport, asking the airport's tower to clear runway 13. But Sullenberger calmly reported: "We're unable."
Then Harten offered another LaGuardia runway. Again, Sullenberger reported, "Unable." He said he might be able to make Teterboro Airport in New Jersey.
But when Harten directed Sullenberger to turn onto a heading for Teterboro, the pilot responded: "We can't do it .... We're going to be in the Hudson."
"I asked him to repeat himself even though I heard him just fine," said Harten. "I simply could not wrap my mind around those words."
At that moment, Harten said he lost radio contact with flight and was certain it "had gone down."
Afterward, Harten said he told his wife, "I felt like I had been hit by a bus."
NTSB investigators have said bird remains found in both engines of the downed plane have been identified as Canada geese.
Sullenberger and Skiles said anyone who's spent much time in cockpits has encountered bird strikes but that this one was exceptionally severe in knocking out both engines. Some gulls don't even dent the airplane, Skiles said, but this "was a bigger bird than I've ever hit before."
The crew and passengers of a helicopter that crashed en route to an oil platform on Jan. 4 weren't as lucky. The National Transportation Safety Board reported Monday that investigators have found evidence birds were involved in the accident near Morgan City, La., that killed eight of nine people aboard.