One of the things Congress must do in the next two months is pass legislation reauthorizing the existence of the Federal Aviation Administration, which regulates air traffic in the United States and is operating under a law that expires Sept. 30. A bill that would privatize the air traffic control system has been introduced in the House; the Senate is considering a different version. Capt. Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger, who famously piloted US Airways Flight 1549 to an emergency landing in the Hudson River in 2009, has some serious concerns about how these bills would affect the safety of aviation and access to air travel. He recently spoke with Yahoo Global News Anchor Katie Couric.
The following is a condensed transcript of the conversation.
Katie Couric: Tell me about this FAA reauthorization bill that’s being considered and why you’ve gotten involved.
Chesley Sullenberger: I learned to fly 50 years ago, just over 50 years ago. The Wright Brothers first flew 114 years ago in December. So I’ve been flying for 44 percent of the entire history of aviation, and I’ve seen the good, the bad and the ugly. I’ve seen what works and what doesn’t. I care about being able to fly, people’s access to it and every facet of aviation. You know, most of aviation is not airline flying; that’s how most people travel, but in terms of total airplanes and numbers of operations, there’s much besides airline flying that’s important to our economy: general aviation, noncommercial flying, which includes corporate aviation and recreational aviation and a variety of other things that have a great benefit.
My real issue, and I think for many people, is that we have a wonderful and unique freedom in this country, this unfettered, wonderful aviation system that anyone can participate in safely and efficiently. In most countries it’s either too restrictive or too expensive for an average person to fly, and the only way you can go is on an airliner or a military flight. It’s just prohibitively restrictive or expensive to do it any other way. That’s something that we need to protect and preserve, and so why in the world would we give the keys to the kingdom to the largest airlines? Because they definitely have their own agenda to lower their costs. Commercial aviation, airline aviation, has become an extraordinarily cost-competitive industry globally, and it becomes more so by the day.
How does this new bill give the keys of the kingdom to commercial airlines?
By removing oversight of the air traffic control system from the FAA and much of the oversight that Congress currently has and giving it to a group of people, stakeholders basically controlled by the largest airlines, to control access to and pricing of access to the air traffic control system. That’s an extreme solution to what’s really a political budget problem.
I thought the Senate bill doesn’t have privatization in it?
Well, the House bill still does, and even if the Senate bill passes in its current form, it’ll have to go to conference. I’m worried about what the end result will be and not about particular individual bills. I’m worried about the direction this has been headed [in] for a number of years and [which] people are still trying to propose. It means bad things for everyone who flies, but especially for people who fly in non-airline ways. That’s a big part of the system.
You’re worried about overall safety as a result of this bill?
I’m worried about access. I’m worried about equitability. I’m worried about safety. There are other, better ways to solve this political budget problem — by giving the FAA, in running the air traffic control system and making capital improvements to the air traffic control system, more predictable multiyear funding — without giving away the keys to the kingdom to the largest airlines to control access and fees and pricing too.
I know one of the things you’re really concerned about in this bill are the pilot experience requirements, which changed in 2013 thanks to the urging of families of victims of a 2009 crash in Buffalo that killed 50 people. The new rules require co-pilots to get the same 1,500 hours of flight time as pilots for their certification to fly passenger and cargo planes. Before then, co-pilots were required just 250 hours of flight time. So you’re worried about this changing back to what it was before 2013?
There are no proposals currently to try to change it back to 250 hours that I’m aware of.
But it’s to get rid of it, right? That co-pilots need to have the same amount of experience as the pilots on these planes?
There are people who are absolutely trying to weaken it, but in sneaky ways. They’re trying to give more credit for non-aviation, non-flying-related activities. You know, like as Sen. Tammy Duckworth said recently, some of the regional airlines are trying to get additional credit toward that 1,500 hours of flying time by not flying part of it, but instead, for example, watching videos in hotel ballrooms or having a non-aviation degree from some non-aviation-accredited university. They’re trying backdoor ways of diluting this new standard that’s been proven to be effective because since we have had the improved safety rules, the last passenger fatality even at the regional [airlines] was in 2009. So eight years ago. Now is not the time to try to be weakening and diluting the pilot experience rules for giving credit for nonflying activities to count toward the 1,500 hours of flight time that is now required.
Why is it so important, Sully, that co-pilots are trained equally?
Because every pilot who sits in the pilot seat of an airliner must be able to be the absolute master of that aircraft and all its systems and the weather conditions you’re experiencing, the situation you’re facing at that moment continuously throughout the flight. We no longer can have an apprentice getting on-the-job training. Every safety protocol that we have is based upon having two fully qualified, well-trained experienced pilots in the cockpit. The captain of an airliner should be the leader of a team of experts and not relegated to the role of flight instructors still teaching basic skills and knowledge to someone who has not yet attained the requisite experience and flying time. So this would be a giant step backwards. We need the first officer to have the confidence, the skill, the judgment as the first officer in the Hudson flight, Jeff Skiles, to question the captain’s decisions if they’re not the best ones, if they’re not the safest ones.
How important was it that Jeff Skiles was as well trained as he was when you were piloting that US Airways flight that you successfully landed in the Hudson River back in 2009?
It was critically important. It literally meant the difference for everyone on the airplane between life and death.
Really? You don’t think you could have done it on your own?
No. Jeff also has 20,000 hours of flying time, like I do. He had been a captain before the most recent layoffs and cutbacks had forced him back into the co-pilot seat. Had he not been so experienced we could not have had the same outcome. People likely would have perished. And let me tell you why. Because this extraordinarily unforeseen event for which we had never been specifically trained, never anticipated, happened so fast that the time, pressure and the workload [were] so intense we didn’t even have time to talk about what had just happened or what we should do. I didn’t have time to direct his every action. I had to rely upon Jeff immediately and intuitively understanding this developing crisis as I did and knowing on his own what he should do to help me. Had he not been able to do that, had we not been able to collaborate wordlessly, something that’s difficult for people to comprehend, we wouldn’t have been able to save every life.
So let me ask you about regional airlines. They provide about half the country’s flights, and those airlines argue that training requirements make it cost-prohibitive to get a license, which has also contributed to a pilot shortage. What’s your response to those concerns?
Let me pose to you an analogy based upon a real-world example. From time to time, we have had a difficult time finding enough primary care physicians, family care physicians, to serve rural counties in this country. … Would we accept a proposal to reduce medical school by a year or two to make it cheaper, easier, faster to provide doctors to serve rural areas? I think the answer obviously is no. That’s crazy, and that’s because people who live in rural areas deserve the same standard of care as people in the rest of the country do.
What do you do about a pilot shortage, though, Sully? … How can we get more capable people attracted to this very important job?
Well, they’re crying wolf. In this country right now for most carriers, there is not a pilot shortage. They are still able to attract qualified, experienced applicants, the number they require. We need to make sure that the industry as a whole can find efficient pathways, and some now exist. There are some good examples where major airlines are partnering with regional airlines and partnering with universities that provide aviation degrees and training.
It’s really only a few of the real bottom-feeders that are the least well run, the least capitalized companies that are having the most trouble. A couple come to mind: Great Lakes and Mesa. There are still a few of them that have extraordinarily low starting pay, in the $20,000 range, barely above food-stamp wage levels, and they’re the ones that are still trying to continue to use what is a broken economic model and one that is not sufficient in this market to attract sufficient numbers of fully qualified candidates. They’re the ones that are having the most trouble.
They’re the ones regional airlines and other associations are pointing to, saying the sky is falling and we got to change the rules because there’s no other way to do it. That’s a big lie. And they’re doing it cravenly for their own reasons to make it more convenient and less costly for them to fill those pilot seats with people who have less experience. What they should be doing is trying to find a way to keep their tacit promise to all their future passengers that they will take the best care of them that they know how to do and have one level of safety across the entire industry.
But some of the regionals that are better run and better capitalized are doing some of the safety methodologies that big airlines do, are still hiring qualified applicants and training them well. We should be helping the less good operators and bring them up to the same standard as better operators.
I read one statistic that regional airlines are claiming that by 2026 there will be a pilot shortage of 30,000.
Well, they need to do a better job of recruiting people to enter that profession. As with any profession, passion only takes you so far. At some point the financial and lifestyle portions of it have to be sustainable. At some point no matter what you’re doing you’re going to want to buy a car, house, have a family, have a life. The economics and the lifestyle that that profession accords you are not sustainable even if you have a lot of passion for it. So we need to do a better job as an industry of reminding people this is a good job, this is an important job. What we do and how we do it is important because we literally hold people’s lives in our hands. And the compensation should reflect that.
In closing, Sully, I wanted to ask, why should people care about this impending legislation?
It affects not only everyone who flies, but it affects everyone. Because everyone knows someone who flies. You know when I talk to audiences of aviators, I talk about the reasons that we became professional pilots. Why we do what we do. And I say that when we enter this noble profession of piloting that I consider a calling, we do literally make a promise to our passengers that we will keep them safe, that we will do the best that we know how to do. And so many of us feel that obligation intensely. We know when we get in an airplane, we have incredible responsibility. I’m trying to remind every airline executive that runs airlines, every FAA regulator that oversees aviation, every lawmaker that oversees aviation, that they should also feel and act on that same obligation.
If people want to learn more about this legislation and get involved, is there any place that you’d recommend they go? Call their member of Congress?
Absolutely. Call your members of Congress. Contact especially the chairman of the aviation subcommittees of the House and the Senate. Get involved. They do listen — when the numbers are great enough, they do listen. And I keep coming back to the Buffalo families, the families of the victims of the February 2009 crash of the Continental Connection, a needless accident that should not have happened.
Well, Sully, thanks again for your time. It’s always great to talk to you.