Hero pilot tells Congress how airline cut pay, axed pension

The veteran pilot who saved everyone on board when he glided his crippled plane to a splash landing in the Hudson River last year told Congress, March 24, severe pay cuts are forcing experienced pilots and crew out of the cockpits and into other careers.

The pay cuts have put “pilots and their families in an untenable financial situation,” said Chesley Sullenberger. “I do not know a single professional airline pilot who wants his or her children to follow in their footsteps.”

The Aviation Subcommittee of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee had called in the crew of Flight 1549 to examine what safety lessons could be learned from the accident. What they heard amounted to an indictment of a profit-hungry, de-regulated airline industry willing to sacrifice anything, including safety, in its drive for maximum profits.

Sullenberger, 58, who joined US Airways in 1980, told Congress that his pay has been cut 40 percent over the last few years and that his pension has been terminated.

The airlines claim that increased bankruptcy rates after the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks forced them to cut wages. Sullenberger said “the bankruptcies were nothing more than a way for the airlines to get concessions in wages and benefits that they could not get in normal times.”

He told Congress that the real problems in the industry began with de-regulation in the 1970’s.

Sullenberger’s copilot Jeffrey Skiles said the rolling back of wages and benefits means “experienced crews in the cockpits will be a thing of the past.” Sullenberger cut in and said, “Without experienced pilots we will see negative consequences to the flying public.”

Sullenberger said he has started a consulting business to help make ends meet. Skiles said, “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 Congressional reps also received a dramatic account that underlined for them the importance of an experienced workforce to the safety of the flying public. Patrick Harten, the air traffic controller involved, discussed the final 3 minutes of Flight 1549.

When Sullenberger said he couldn’t make it either back to LaGuardia or to Teterboro Airport and would ditch in the Hudson River, Harten testified, “I believed at that moment I was going to be the last person to talk to anyone on that flight alive.”

Nevertheless, Sullenberger glided the jet into the river in one piece near ferry boats that picked the passengers off the plane’s wings before it sank in the icy waters.

Harten had struggled in vain to help get the plane safely to a landing strip.

Making quick decisions, Harten communicated with 14 other entities in the three minutes after Canadian geese struck the plane’s engines. He diverted other aircraft and got other controllers at other locations top hold aircraft and clear runways for 1549.

First Harten tried to return the plane to LaGuardia, clearing runway 13. Sullenberger said, “We’re unable.”

Then Harten offered another LaGuardia runway. Sullenberger said, “We’re unable.”

When Harten directed Sullenberger to turn into a heading for Teterboro, Sullenberger said, “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,” Harten said. “I simply could not wrap my mind around those words.”

At that moment, Harten said he lost radio contact with the plane and was certain “it had gone down.”