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Airline Industry

Airline finances may hurt safety, Sullenberger says  Feb 24, 2009

The pilot hailed for landing a disabled jet on New York’s Hudson River last month said cost cutting in the U.S. airline industry may jeopardize passenger safety and the quality of aviators that carriers hire.

“I am worried that the airline-piloting profession will not be able to continue to attract the best and the brightest,” Chesley B. “Sully” Sullenberger III, a captain at US Airways Group Inc., told the lawmakers in testimony today.

Airlines have been paring jobs to cope with a drop in travel demand during the recession, and Sullenberger said his pay has been trimmed 40 percent in recent years. The Jan. 15 ditching, in which all aboard the plane survived, shows the need for training and experience that the cutbacks may erode, Sullenberger said.

There could be “negative consequences to the flying public and to our country” if planes are piloted by less experienced and “not sufficiently” valued pilots, he said.

“The current experience and skills of our country’s professional airline pilots come from investments made years ago when we were able to attract the ambitious, talented people who now frequently seek lucrative professional careers” elsewhere, Sullenberger said.

Sullenberger and the crew recounted the crash landing for Congress, as did Patrick Harten, the air-traffic controller handling departures from New York’s LaGuardia airport when the plane went down.

Importance of Training

Harten said he thought the jet and its passengers were lost when Sullenberger announced he would attempt a water landing.

“People don’t survive landings on the Hudson River,” Harten said. “I believed at that moment I was going to be the last person to talk to anyone on that plane alive.”

The US Airways jet, carrying 155 people, lost power after takeoff. The National Transportation Safety Board said this month that Canada-goose remains were found in both engines, supporting statements by the pilots that the plane hit birds. NTSB member Steven Chealander said the agency may never know how many birds the plane struck.

“This incident demonstrates the importance of training and preparation,” said House Aviation Subcommittee Chairman Jerry Costello, an Illinois Democrat. Costello and other members of the panel praised the crew for its actions on the Hudson.

Sullenberger, 58, has worked at Tempe, Arizona-based US Airways since 1980, according the airline’s Web site. He is a former Air Force fighter pilot.

“You represent the very best of aviation,” said James Oberstar, House transportation committee chairman and a Minnesota Democrat. “Lindbergh would be proud of you.”

Pay Cuts

US Airways filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in 2002 and exited court protection in 2003. It filed for bankruptcy a second time in September 2004, and emerged in September 2005 through its merger with America West Holdings Corp.

US Airways terminated its pension plans in 2005, before leaving bankruptcy, and the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corp. became trustee for the plans. The airline secured more than $1.1 billion a year in job, wage and benefit cuts from its unions while in bankruptcy.

“My pay has been cut 40 percent,” Sullenberger said. “My pension, like most airline pensions, has been terminated and replaced by a PBGC guarantee worth only pennies on the dollar.”

Pilot Earnings

A US Airways captain at top pay scale and flying an Airbus SAS A320 earns base pay of at least $125 an hour and flies a minimum of 72 hours a month, for $9,000 a month, according to, which helps pilots with career advancement. A 12-year first officer on the same aircraft earns $85 an hour, or $6,120 a month. Pilots flying larger aircraft on international routes are paid at higher rates.

The 9 biggest U.S. carriers moved last year to ground 460 jets and cut 26,000 jobs as oil prices surged to a record. The price of jet fuel, which is refined from crude, has plunged 72 percent since a July peak, spurring analysts’ estimates for a collective 2009 profit that would be the industry’s first in a recession.

Separately, a former Transportation Department inspector general said U.S. regulators have shown “bureaucratic inertia” in failing to implement aviation-safety recommendations, including those on turboprops and icing.

Mary Schiavo, now an attorney for a group of safety advocates who plan to sue the department’s Federal Aviation Administration, said regulators have stalled on measures that could have helped prevent crashes. The criticism, which the agency disputes, comes less than two weeks after a Pinnacle Airlines Corp. plane went down in icy conditions near Buffalo, New York, killing 50 people.

The suit seeking to compel the FAA to act on National Transportation Safety Board recommendations will be filed today in federal court in Washington, Schiavo said yesterday.

Airline finances may hurt safety, Sullenberger says
Chesley B. “Sully” Sullenberger / Image via

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