Ask the Pilot

Will the airlines' current financial troubles affect safety? "Sully" Sullenberger thinks so, but I'm not so sure.

Published March 6, 2009 11:24AM (EST)

Is Chesley "Sully" Sullenberger a hero? If the name doesn't ring a bell, Sully is the US Airways captain who guided his suddenly engine-less Airbus into the Hudson River back on Jan. 15. In the minds of millions, yes, he is.

Personally, I take a different view. (If you were tuned in to this column over the past month or so, you already know my thoughts on this, but hang with me for a minute.) I love a happy ending as much as the next guy, but it wasn't heroics that saved the lives of all 155 people on board that plane; it was something a bit more ordinary, if no less important (and a tad less marketable for the networks). Two things, actually: luck and professionalism.

Believe it or not, from a pilot's perspective there are many worse nightmares than having to splash-land a jetliner in a calmly flowing river in broad daylight. A successful outcome was by no means guaranteed, and Sully and his seldom-mentioned first officer, Jeffrey Skiles, performed admirably in response to a serious emergency. But they did what they had to do, and what we presume most professional aviators would have done in the same situation.

And notably absent from the media's wall-to-wall coverage of the event was the role of luck. Had the bird strike occurred under darkness or in fog, over a section of the city beyond gliding range to the Hudson, the result almost certainly would have been a catastrophe, and no amount of talent or experience would have prevented it. Indeed the annals of aviation are rich with examples of pilots who answered the call of duty with as much or more bravery and skill as Sullenberger and Skiles. Through no fault of their own, they didn't survive to make the talk-show rounds.

Sullenberger himself is acutely aware of this and has played the hero role with appreciable demur. He is intelligent, articulate and duly respectful to his profession and to his colleagues.

Good for him.

And good for him, too, when he made an impassioned speech last week to a U.S. congressional subcommittee, taking advantage of his sudden celebrity to highlight the precarious state of the airline business and the perils facing its workers.

No employee, in any line of work, is resting easy right now, but commercial aviation, with its tiny margins and intense competition, is extremely sensitive to recession. Deregulation made flying affordable, but it has also left us a long, dark legacy of layoffs, bankruptcies and liquidations. The business has always been cyclical, but never before have airline employees been more nervously chewing their nails as they are at this moment. Only the cost of fuel, which has fallen sharply from its peak last summer, has thus far saved the industry from all-out calamity. Should the downturn worsen -- or even if it doesn't -- we won't be surprised if one or more major carriers files for bankruptcy before the end of the year.

You might recall the massive layoffs and numerous bankruptcies that came in the wake of the terror attacks of 2001. Bad as that cycle was, this one is liable to be worse.

Airlines are popular villains, and not everybody will greet their demise with sympathy. But I hope you will take a minute to acknowledge the many workers, including Capt. Sullenberger and 1st Officer Skiles, who already have seen their salaries slashed, their benefits surrendered, and their pensions gutted.

The cuts suffered by pilots are perhaps especially notable, if for no other reason than people generally presume them to be extremely well paid. Some are, most are not, and pay scales for airline pilots have dropped sharply in the past eight years -- by 30 to 40 percent on average. It will surprise most people to learn that starting pay for a pilot at a major is somewhere around $30,000 annually.

That's after the arduous, less-than-lucrative path the typical new hire has followed to get there. Historically, upward of 80 percent of major carrier new hires were recruited from the military. That number has fallen to around 50 percent in recent years. Civilian-trained pilots must first earn their various Federal Aviation Administration license and ratings, a piecemeal process that often takes years and can cost $100,000 or more. Next comes a stint as an instructor or light-plane charter pilot, followed by several years at one or more regional carriers -- those Connection and Express and Airlink affiliates -- where opening salaries are between $14,000 and $20,000 per year. There are no missing digits in those figures; a first officer at the controls of a $25 million regional jet brings home roughly what he'd make working at the mall.

It's paradoxical, I suppose, because flying regional planes is probably more challenging than flying larger jets. The regional pilots put in long hours operating in and out of busy airports. Short-haul, low-altitude routes mean constant wrastling with ice, snow and thunderstorms.

Finally, if a pilot is lucky, comes a slot with one of the big players -- American, Delta, Southwest, et al., or perhaps UPS or FedEx. It varies, but once you're at this level, eight or 10 years of seniority will be required before you make a six-figure income -- provided one or more bankruptcies or furloughs don't snag you along the way. Sullenberger and Skiles have each been employed at US Airways for more than 20 years. Sullenberger's base salary is a bit more than $100,000; Skiles' is around $70,000.

A fear of what economists call "adverse selection" doesn't seem to apply at airlines. The concept describes how, in times of economic stress, many companies shy away from reducing wages out of fear of driving away the brightest and most productive employees. Writing in the March 2 issue of the New Yorker, James Surowiecki notes that many American companies have been maintaining or even raising hourly pay rates. "It's harder and harder to find and keep a job," says Surowiecki, "but if you've got one you may well be making more than you did twelve months ago." On the contrary, the average major airline pilot has lost a third or more of his salary over the past half-decade, and has to worry about losing his job.

Also bear in mind that salary or tenure is nontransferable. If a pilot who is furloughed or otherwise cast off from one airline chooses to work at another, the seniority system dictates that he begin again at probationary pay and benefits, regardless of experience. If US Airways were to go bust tomorrow, Sully and Skiles are free to apply at one of its competitors (if, in fact, any of them were hiring, which they are not). There, once accepted, they would be assigned a position as junior first officer and paid accordingly. Airline rosters are full of pilots making the slow climb at their third, fourth, even fifth carrier.

It pleased me to hear Sully, speaking in front of the House aviation subcommittee, bringing needed attention to the industry's woes.

What didn't please me as much, however, was his tempting, if dubious, segue into how these troubles might affect safety.

It stands to reason, does it not, that an industry this shaky will fail to attract and retain the best pilots? Skiles, who joined Sully at the microphone, was more direct: "Experienced crews in the cockpit will be a thing of the past." Added Sullenberger, "We will see negative consequences to the flying public."

Well, yes and no.

To properly address this, we need to divide the field in half, with major airlines on one side, and regional carriers on the other, as they tend to draw from very different applicant pools.

Let's take the regionals first. For pilots, tenure at a regional was once assumed to be temporary. It was a job you took to hone your skills before, fingers crossed, moving on to a more lucrative slot with a legacy carrier. This progression was never a sure thing, but if nothing else it served as a carrot that kept a supply of young, talented and highly motivated pilots moving through the ranks. Nowadays this path has slowed to a trickle, and many pilots are finding out that a job with a regional means a career with a regional -- one with minimal payback for the cash and commitment it has taken to get there. This is a prospect that has more regional pilots bailing out of the business. Meanwhile, the replacement pool isn't nearly as impressive as it used to be. The average experience level of new hires has fallen drastically.

When I was hired into my first cockpit job, in 1990, I had accrued approximately 1,500 total flight hours and possessed something known as an Airline Transport Pilot (ATP) certificate from the FAA. Those were, at the time, average to below-average qualifications. Lately at the regionals, new hires have been coming on with as few as 300 to 500 total hours and a basic FAA commercial license.

That's an eyebrow raiser for sure. Granted, all candidates must pass the same training regimen before being assigned to the line, and a raw tally of flight hours isn't always a good prognosticator of skill or performance under pressure. But I imagine myself as a young, 500-hour pilot assigned to a regional jet. Would I be qualified to the letter of the law? Sure. Am I the best and safest candidate for the job? Absolutely not. There are valuable intangibles that a candidate that green simply does not possess.

Thus, I suppose it is fair to say that regional airlines are becoming, on some level, less safe. Mind you that we're wrangling with statistical minutiae. Less safe is not the same as unsafe, and this is by no means an admonition against flying on these carriers. Nevertheless, it warrants our attention.

For the major airlines, by contrast, the pool of highly qualified applicants is anything but diminished.

If and when they ever begin hiring again, the majors will continue to have their pick of the most senior, high-hour regional captains, pilots coming from the armed forces, not to mention their own previously hired pilots currently out on furlough.

"We foresee no shortage of experienced and qualified pilots," said David Castelveter, spokesman for the Air Transport Association, in response to the comments of Sully and Skiles. For the most part, he's right. "There currently is a surplus of experienced pilots who have been furloughed as a result of industry downsizing," he astutely added.

Heck, if experience were the only metric that mattered, one could almost buy the argument that downsizing makes the industry safer, seeing how junior positions are the ones being eliminated. Furloughed, laid-off, made redundant. Call it what you will, there are several thousand lower-seniority pilots residing on forced sabbatical from the majors. Some of these pilots have slid backward, if you will, taking positions with regionals; others have gone to supplemental cargo or charter outfits. Others still are flying overseas, and more than a few have opted out of the business entirely. (I, for one, am hoping to avoid furlough No. 3. I only recently returned to the cockpit, having spent five years as an orphan of the post-Sept. 11 downturn. Prior to that, in the mid-1990s, I was victimized by a regional carrier bankruptcy and liquidation.)

Regardless of the safety issue, the airline industry must deal with some serious and systemic problems. Fixing them will require change from both within and without. Economic recovery and, perhaps, stricter government regulation would certainly tighten the ship. And from within, pay scales and working conditions, particularly at the regional level, need to become more sustainable. Only then can we be assured, long-term, a workforce of committed, motivated, highly skilled pilots -- not just safe but the safest in the world.

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Do you have questions for Salon's aviation expert? Contact Patrick Smith through his Web site and look for answers in a future column.

By Patrick Smith

Patrick Smith is an airline pilot.

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