Last month, Capt. Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger (a fine graduate of my alma mater, the USAF Academy) took a very courageous stand in his testimony before Congress following the “Miracle on the Hudson.” Sully told of the worsening conditions in the airline industry in regard to compensation and retention. One of the most cogent comments he made was “I do not know a single pilot who would counsel their children to choose a profession in the airline industry.” Let me relay my own story and relate it to the tapestry Sully weaves.
Four years ago, I retired several years early from a profession I loved and in which I had spent my entire working life. The last 20 years of my career, I held increasing levels of responsibility and loved the people and challenges of the airline industry. Early retirement for me was a very tough choice, but one made only for economic reasons…I fully expected my airline to declare chapter 11 (they did) and cancel my pension (they did). The pilots doing the same job today are making roughly 50% of what I did due to pay, benefit, and work rule changes. They are still making a decent living, but at a far lower rate than before. At my airline, over 1,500 very experienced captains took early retirement in the years preceding the bankruptcy, many seeking to preserve a portion of their pension by retiring early – a huge loss of experience and this at just one airline!
Reaching the pinnacle of an airline pilot’s career requires many years of preparation. While gaining experience and ratings, pay and working conditions are sub-par. The time and commitment required is akin to a doctor who finishes medical school and then spends many more years in specialty training. Then, when reaching the top of one’s career, the rules change and the economic model is completely rewritten. This is the state of our industry today. These changes have affected not only our pilot population, but all those who support the operation – mechanics, gate agents, flight attendants, etc. In many ways, the glory is gone and it has become “just a job” to many people.
I share this situation to make the case that Sully is right, that young people choosing a profession today are less and less attracted to the future they see in the aviation. In some ways, this is a national crisis that has been years in the making and will only come to fruition some years in the future when pilots and other specialists become scarce. The law of supply and demand dictates that scarcity will force improvements in conditions, but not if there are less experienced pilots willing to take the jobs formerly held by pilots with much greater experience.
This was the point Sully was trying to make…we have to deal with today’s issues before they become tomorrow’s crisis. There are many ways to obtain flying experience, and no one of these is the “right” way. But, there is no substitute for experience in the cockpit to enhance safety and prepare one for the unexpected emergency such as Sully and his crew faced. We may be producing pilots but not nearly enough pilots with the robust training and background necessary to obtain the highest levels of competence in the cockpit.
Lest I seem all doom and gloom, there are solutions to these problems. The beginning of solving any problem is awareness, and we’ll talk in future blogs about steps we can take now to avoid a crisis of experience later.