The Future of Airline Safety is Endangered by Low Pay and Lack of Skill: Captain Sully Sullenberger Speaks Out

In one of the better interviews I’ve heard with him, Captain “Sully” Sullenberger (known as the Hero of the Hudson for his split-second reactions that landed a plane hit by a flock of geese safely on the Hudson River outside of New York City) discusses not only his new book and the experience of the 208 seconds in which he saved dozens of lives, but also the future of airline safety.

The interview tags well with his testimony before the US Congress, in which he said:

If we do not sufficiently value the airline piloting profession and future pilots are less experienced and less skilled, it logically follows that we will see negative consequences to the flying public – and to our country.

Sullenberger used his fame as a sudden national hero to speak in front of the US Congress about the future of aviation, and how its dangers will come not from the dangers of the planes themselves, but more from the lack of training and experience in the crew. Sullenberger points to his own life, in which he has taken a 40% pay cut since 2002, and has to work another job in addition to being a pilot in order to make ends meet.

Flight crews of US-based airlines, if not airlines worldwide, have been stricken with deep cuts in pay since September 11th, 2001. They have also seen serious cutbacks in regulations regarding how long their shifts can be and how much sleep they’re required to have before flying. As with the medical profession (in which 40-hour shifts during residencies can be routine), it has been shown repeatedly that seriously sleep-deprived people make more mistakes.

The combination of low pay, long hours, and sleep deprivation can be, and probably will be, a lethal one if something is not done. Although Sullenberger uses more tame language, the implication of his evidence is self-evident. People don’t do a bad job because they get paid poorly; but professions that don’t pay enough to live on do not attract the highest quality people. Not to mention the long shifts and lack of sleep.

Sullenberger is soft-spoken, obviously intelligent, and earnest. He doesn’t rant, but he is clear and to the point. He spreads credit for his heroic acts to the rest of his crew and to flight controllers on the ground. This is a man who inspires trust, whether he’s ever done anything “heroic,” or not.

While the interview concentrates more on the now-famous 208 seconds and Sullenberger’s new book, Highest Duty: My Search for What Really Matters, interested readers can learn even more about his airline safety activism by reading a transcript of his testimony before Congress on Aircrew Buzz.

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