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© 2007-11, William Swelbar.

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« Sullying the Airline Safety Story »

In my recent speech to the Aero Club of Washington, I said that I have seen plenty of reckless labor leadership in my day. And that I believe that the use of safety as a stick to create economic leverage for contract bargaining purposes – as the unions have done at United, US Airways and American -- is not just wrong, it’s contemptible.

That’s essentially what happened at Tuesday’s House Aviation Subcommittee hearing on the US Airways Flight 1549 accident. According to the Summary of Subject Matter, the hearing was to focus on safety issues including Pilot and Crew Procedures for Emergency Landings; Crew Training; Crash Survivability; Bird Strikes; Engine Design and Testing; and Bird Radar Detection. Nowhere in my reading was this hearing intended as a platform for employee compensation or airline industry labor relations. That, however was the story the media told.

Headlines like: “Sullenberger: Pay Cuts Driving Pilots From Job”;”‘Sully:’ Airlines Risking Safety With Cuts”;” Pay Cuts Put Lives at Risk – Hero Pilot”; “Hero Pilot Says Benefit Cuts Driving Out Experienced Pilots”; and “Airline Finances May Hurt Safety, Sullenberger Says” took one small piece of a day’s testimony and, leveraging Sully’s popularity, sensationalized the story. What didn’t make the headlines were the very safety issues the hearing was called to spotlight: the dangers bird strikes pose or the industry’s efforts to address the problem.

This morning, Ben Mutzabaugh blogging for the USA Today writes: Advances make airline crashes more survivable. This is the real story. Mutzabaugh quotes Kieren Daly of Air Transport Intelligence from a CNN interview: "the low number of casualties in both crashes [US Airways and Turkish Airlines] was testament to technical advances made by the aviation industry." As Daly tells CNN: "It is a tribute to Boeing and Airbus that their aircraft are so safe. Most accidents now are caused by single causes, like bird strikes, that you simply can't legislate against."

It appears to me that U.S. Airline Pilots Association, the union that represents US Airways pilots, is using Sully’s well-deserved celebrity to take their disputes with management public. Sadly, the mainstream press writes the labor relations story and no one talks about the advances in safety that also contributed to minimizing casualties.

Sullenberger argues in this testimony that the future of the pilot profession will be harmed by reduced earnings – a troubling reality for all airline employees in recent years as the industry has changed and simply no longer supports the same costs it used to. Today’s airline pilots are rightly frustrated, but until the market is such that passengers are willing to pay much more per seat thus improving the financial structure of the business, the airlines can only pay pilots what the market will bear. And that market is not the unsustainable wages and benefits paid at the top of the last boom cycle.

Keep in mind, too, that pilot salaries are pretty high compared to the norm – even after the reductions airline restructuring brought. Most major carrier captains earn well more than $100,000 per year. And pilot attrition rates are down.

I sympathize with the depth of some of the pilot pay cuts and I certainly sympathize with those airline workers who lost defined benefit plans in bankruptcy. But what the unions fail to tell you is that disproportionate pay reductions on many of their members is the direct result of language in respective collective bargaining agreements written over 40 years ago.

Among pilots, some of the pay reductions are the result of moving from the left seat to the right seat as airlines reduce capacity and get smaller – another effect is moving from a bigger piece of equipment to a smaller piece of equipment. It is the terms of collective bargaining agreements that set pay, with that for captains higher than that for first officers.

Maybe it is time to rethink how we pay pilots. Contracts that pay hourly rates based on the equipment a pilot flies may not fairly take into account other realities of flying today. In a maturing industry that does not promise growth rates like those experienced over the past 30 years, it is probably time to pay a salary so that downsizing does not disproportionately impact some pilot's pay more than others.

I have thought long and hard about writing this particular piece. But enough is enough. In no way am I insinuating that the actions by Captain Chesley B. Sullenberger III and his crew were not exemplary, professional or even heroic in their Hudson River landing on January 15, 2009. They were and more.


Reader Comments (1)

Interesting piece, I agree that the way pay scales are figured could use restructuring.
The fact that most major carrier captains earn well over $100,000 is lacking in context which I think might explain Captain Sullenberger's choice to say what he did.
It takes most people a long time to advance to the left seat at a major, if they ever do. As a regional airline FO I earned just over $21,000 last year, and will make about 26k this year. This for a job I invested $50000 of borrowed money to get licensed for, on top of a 4 year degree.
There is also a very condescending attitude emanating from management offices at many companies which when combined with low pay, creates a very poor work environment. The public perception is that all pilots make a handsome living (trust me, I have explained this countless times to countless people, most of them quite shocked), and this perception works against us when a labor dispute goes public. I believe Captain Sullenberger said what he did because he is honestly concerned about this situation. I echo him in saying I do not know a single airline pilot who would encourage anyone else to become one. The problem is if this happens, which it began to show signs of in 2007 before age 65 passed, the number of qualified people entering the industry will drop to the point that hiring standards reach a point where safety is threatened.
I said I would never become a bitter airline pilot, it took about 8 months to get there. I and many others are actively considering what else we might do as a career, I just hope word gets out and more young people don't waste their time and effort to get into an industry that treats people the way this one has come to.

03.22.2009 | Unregistered CommenterRB

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