Airline Safety in the New Millennium

The successful ditching of U.S. Airways Flight 1549  reflects the actions of an experienced and well trained crew, coupled with the added benefits of location and environmental conditions.

As a retired airline captain and flight instructor/check airman I have seen the changes that have occurred within the industry over more than three decades.  In spite of the advances in technology it has not been pretty.

Airlines have been increasingly managed by a private equity  firms and non-airline people.  Airline pioneers and visionaries like Juan Trippe, William A. Patterson, Jack Frye, C.R. Smith and Eddie Rickenbacker are long gone and have not been replaced.

Instead, carriers are run by financial entities with no passion or interest in aviation.  An airline must be managed with a broader scope than the bottom line focus currently employed by many managers.

With regard to safety, technology has usually compensated for the minimalist approach to airline operation.  I suggest that sooner or later it will be unable to do so. Experienced, well trained pilots like Captain Sullenberger are being reduced in numbers.  When I began my career it was common to be upgraded to captain after ten or twelve years as a first officer (copilot).  Today it might be two years.  Airline flying requires miles and miles of sky and experiences, both good and bad, to season the airman.

Training within the airline industry has become more efficient with technology providing many tools for simulation and learning.  However, the human element has taken a back seat.  Think again if you think that airline training has not been subject to serious cost control.  Classroom hours  and flight simulator time have been reduced.  Flight simulators have completely replaced training in the actual airplane for most carriers.  We used to train in the full motion simulator and then go the the actual airplane for the remainder of the training which included handling emergencies such as engine failures.  Airplanes are very expensive to be used as training devices.

It has been my experience that airline people are among the most dedicated and job oriented employees anywhere.  But, their ranks are being decimated. I have told my friends that I would not advise a bright young man or woman to consider a flying career in today’s industry. That view is echoed by Sully.

Captain Sullenberger spoke to CBS News and here is a quote:

“One way of looking at this might be that, for 42 years, I’ve been making small regular deposits in this bank of experience: education and training,” he said during a “60 Minutes” interview broadcast Sunday. “And on January 15, the balance was sufficient so that I could make a very large withdrawal.”

Noting over 6,000 commercial pilots lost their jobs last year — either through furloughs, or permanent layoffs — interviewer Katie Couric asked Sullenberger for his opinion on what those losses represent to the industry.

“The airline employees have been hit by an economic tsunami. Pay cuts, loss of pensions, increased hours every day, days per week, days per month… I know some of our pilots, who have been laid off, have chosen not to return,” Sullenberger said. “I can speak personally, for me and my family, that my decision to remain in this profession that I love has come at a cost to me and my family.”

The demographic for US commercial airline pilots has changed radically over the past 17 years. In 1992, about 90 percent of commercial pilots flying for major airlines had military backgrounds; today, about 30 percent claim time in the military. Due to industry-wide cutbacks in pay, benefits and pensions, today’s pilots also work more hours, and earn less money… a combination Sullenberger believes is driving older pilots out of airline service.

“I think that there will always be people who want to do this,” Sullenberger, 58, said. “It just may not be the same people who are doing it now.”

“Are you concerned that that means if another situation like this one comes up in the future, you won’t have as qualified a pilot flying the plane?” Couric asked.

“That just follows doesn’t it?” Sullenberger replied.

Captain Sully is absolutely right.


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