What Captain Sullenberger Meant to Say (But Was Too Polite to Do So): A Guest Post

We recently introduced you to Captain Steve, an airline pilot for a major U.S. carrier, who will be regularly fielding your questions about any and all aspects of air travel. But before we get to that, Captain Steve had something he wanted to say about the overall state of the industry, and particularly how pilots fit in — or don’t.

What Captain Sullenberger Meant to Say
(But Was Too Polite to Do So)
A Guest Post
By Captain Steve

After reading some of the excepts of Captain Sullenberger‘s various speeches, especially those of a few weeks ago with the National Transportation Safety Board, I would like to add my editorial from a seasoned international captain.

Captain Sullenberger has been a class act all the way. He’s not been petty, pious, or egotistical. He is, however, much like most of the captains I know and, more broadly, most of the pilots I know. Why? He doesn’t need to be otherwise. When someone has accomplished what he and the scores of men and women like him have accomplished, why do we need to boast?

He implies that what he did while serving as the “skipper” of US Airways flight 1549 was simply his job. He is being as honest and accurate as he can be: “Please, no fanfare, no applause, just doing my job.” But what he has also alluded to in some of his speeches is that it has taken years, even decades, to prepare himself for that one single “lifetime event” of guiding his jet into the safe, smooth landing on the Hudson River.

What he is not saying is this:

We, the airline pilots, are facing a losing battle in the PR department. You believe that we make huge salaries and are treated like royalty. Pure fiction. The public persona or image as propagated by airline management and the ATA is grossly wrong. Why have we been losing this battle for such a long time? Simple. Because most of us are like “Sully”; we don’t want applause or fanfare for doing what we are trained to do. However, we do realize that we should be fairly compensated for what we have achieved to get this job and what we continue to do on a daily basis to keep it. This backlash of pilot bashing is building to a boiling point.

Regional carriers, like the Colgan Airlines flight in Buffalo, are simply this: they employ the lowest-bidder pilots. No offense to them, this is not personal. Don’t make that a distraction to the problem. It is the system that is at fault. Money and profits at all cost.

Airline history lesson 101: It used to be, up until the mid 1980’s, that a young pilot would be hired on at a major carrier, become a flight engineer (FE), and then spend a few years managing the systems of the older-generation airplanes. But he or she was learning all the while. These new “pilots” sat in the FE seat and did their job, all the while observing the “pilots” doing the flying, day in and day out.

The FE’s learned from the seasoned pilots about the real world of flying into the Chicago O’Hares and New York LaGuardias. They learned decision making, delegation, and the reality of “captain’s final authority” as confirmed in the law. When they got the chance to upgrade, they became a copilot. The copilot’s duty was to assist the captain in flying; but even during their time as the new copilot, they had the luxury of the FE looking over their shoulders — i.e., more learning. This three-man-crew concept, now a fond memory in the domestic markets but used predominately in international flying, was considered one more layer of protection. But it’s gone.

Now domestic flying is being shifted to the regional carriers, like the American Eagles, Comairs, Mesas, and Colgan Airs, to name a few. These consist of the lowest bidders and the newest pilots flying into the harshest of environments. The airline management teams would respond that it works and that this is routine flying. I beg to differ.

Analogy: You are told you need open-heart surgery for a quadruple bypass. I ask that from this date forward you go out and search the Internet for the cheapest price that you can get, and you rush to schedule this operation because there are only two dates that you can get that cheap rate. Done!

Do any of us do that? No. What do we do? We get second opinions, we ask who is the best in town, etc. We ask: “Is there anyone who has been doing this surgery for the last 20 to 25 years”? We don’t say, “Let me use someone who just graduated from medical school and was rushed through residency because it will be cheaper.”

Why not apply the same logic that the public uses to buy an airplane ticket to this surgery scenario? Bypass surgery is routine, right? Some surgeons do two, three, or four a day. It must be easy.

To take that a step further, how many surgeons have to retake their medical boards every nine months in order to be qualified? Airline pilots do. We are subject to simulator check-rides every nine months to demonstrate knowledge, proficiency, and ability.

How many surgeons have to take a physical exam every six months by the A.M.A. in order to work? None! Airline pilots do. Fail your medical exam and you’re done! How many surgeons (or any other critical professional like surgeon or politician) are subject to random drug and alcohol testing? None.

Flying across the North Atlantic is routine, right? It wasn’t just a short few decades ago. We, the pilots, make it routine for you because we have skills, experience, and training like very few others.

Gifted? No, not many of us are. But dedicated and focused upon excellence, you bet! I have told my kids one thing many times since they were little children: “I don’t expect perfection, I expect excellence.” I expect 100 percent effort in all you do. This is the creed of every pilot I know.

Flying from Chicago’s O’Hare to Denver is routine, right? But it wasn’t a few decades ago. We, the pilots, make it routine too. But I challenge you on this. Is your life worth less because you are over the heartland of America in the dark of night rather than climbing into the skies of Rio over the Amazon or headed out across the Pacific? It is worth less if you are on the low-cost regional carrier because you chose to pay less. If you are on the regional carrier headed to Denver and the engine is on fire, I am sure that it is comforting to know that you saved 15 percent by shopping the Internet for the cheapest fare. Isn’t it great to know that you have the newest, least-experienced, exhausted, starving young cockpit crew that this regional airline could find? Good for you!

Did I say starving? Yeah, I did. Did you know that these regional crews can work for 12 to 13 hours every day, flying five to eight legs a day, but their airline does not feel it’s important enough to provide food for them? They are already on welfare wages, and now they have to find time and money while on the ground for 25 minutes to simply nourish themselves. It’s a sad state of affairs. Remember, you bought the cheapest ticket.

Why do we do this? We do this in spite of having lost our pensions, lost 50 percent of our wages, and our horrible work conditions. Our job is intense. It is very fatiguing. Our work causes us to break circadian rhythms and we can’t sleep. I told you, we are dedicated and professional.

The public thinks it is entitled to fly anywhere in the country for $99. Get Real. You get what you pay for. Less airfare means less pay, less maintenance, and less customer service. Lower fares mean peanuts are now too expensive and pretzels will cost you.

By the way, the next shoe to drop is for airlines to allow foreign investment. Prepare to have our airlines taken over by foreign governments, robbed of cash, and then disbanded. You will now be flying on China Eastern, Lufthansa, or British Airways from O’Hare to Denver. Our jobs and the entire airline industry is about to implode, just so you can have your $99 fare.


The free market: it works best when quality isn't a big deal.


I suppose this pilot has good things to say, but this piece reads like an unfocused advocacy rant rather than a nuanced exploration of the challenges facing pilots today.


This huge difference in quality has led to exactly how many crashes over the past 20 years? What is the disparity between top airlines and regional airlines in terms of crash rates? Let's see the numbers.

Anyways, complaining that people are trying to get cheap things is silly. People eat at McDonalds instead of WholeFoods. Do we see McDonalds fry boys and mutual fund managers complaining that their pay is a function of people wanting cheaper food and financial advice?

By the way, if the airline industry is about to implode, it's because it's been propped up by the American taxpayer for years.

I took away from this piece exactly one thing: don't become a pilot.


The airline industry's woes are really the fault of the consumer? Because I am tired of paying $750 to fly across the country for lousy service, no food and delayed flights it is my fault? Low cost carriers have a business model that allows them to fly cheaper. It started a price arms race that was long overdue. If pilots are overworked and underpaid by those carriers one would assume that it will catch up with them, but maybe not.

My biggest complaint with the above post is that last bit about foreign carriers. The whole world knows that American carriers are the worst; oldest planes and worst service. Would it really be so awful if Delta gets bought by Virgin and I was suddenly able to get better service? The argument that foreign competition for American airspace is bad for business is patently ridiculous.


I agree with capt Steve that it's unfortunate but I don't know what he is proposing as a solution

when he says "you get what you pay for" is he suggesting that if we don't buy the cheapest fare online, if we pay a little more, then the airlines will get us a better pilot? I think not.

I feel he's blaming the consumer but it's hardly in the consumer's power to influence this

this sounds like a good time for govt to step in an regulate

tho I'm still unclear what the author is proposing


I don't understand our reluctance to pay well the professionals who protect our lives:


These people require special training. They put the lives of others before their own. And, they risk their lives for us.

Colin Toal

Why would foreign money mean be a disaster ?

Air Canada has been struggling for, literally, decades now because Canada is simply too big and too sparsely populated to be a viable market for an air carrier. They need the economy of scale that comes from being part of an international carrier. I think investment from Emirates or Cathay Pacific or Virgin would only improve safety and crew conditions for AC.


" You will now be flying on China Eastern, Lufthansa, or British Airways from O'Hare to Denver."

Having flown on all three of those, I'd have to say most US carriers would be tied for third place in that race. Strongly ahead of China Eastern Air, but behind the other two.

So I'll ask - why would it be such a bad thing if an airline with a better reputation took over?

Jerry Tsai

Let's say what Captain Steve is true -- why wouldn't an airline ADVERTISE the safety factor in flying their planes, much like Saab's reputation. If we customers thought that for a few bucks more we would receive better quality flying, we might just pay for it.


I agree that this reads like simply a rant. The fact is unless the airlines start giving pilot experience ratings with their flights as customers book them then there will be no way for the customer to discern the value of the flight. The fact is that I board a flight, be it major or regional, I have no idea who my pilot is. Because of that I cannot put that into my decision making and I will continue to go with the cheapest option until that information is provided to me.

Jeff B

I appreciate many of the points Captain Steve is attempting to make, but in attacking at various points the customers (for our unwillingness to pay more), the pilots (those on regional airlines, at least) and management (for not paying more), I'm really uncertain what the takeaway from this is supposed to be. Is he proposing government intervention to improve working conditions and wages? Is he suggesting that pilots for regional airlines receive more training? Does he just want a free meal every now and then? It's entirely unclear.


Captain Steve,
Are you suggesting that I get higher quality service if I pay more for my ticket? On every flight, people sitting right next to each other pay different prices for the same flight, but get exactly the same service. Think about it - don't blame the customer. Do you demand to pay more when you fly somewhere?

Christopher Weeks

So what exactly are "welfare wages?"


There is really a good case for Airlines being owned entirely by pilots. All the incentives would be aligned....I think.


Somehow I suspect that if consumers increased their tendency to buy a more expensive ticket instead of the cheapest one, the extra money spent would go to investors and management, not to pilots. Nor would it result in "better" (better trained, more experienced) pilots being hired. As travelers, at no point in the process are we given visibility into the qualifications of the flight crew, and thus can't use that as a criterion in the buying process.

The problems you raise are real and serious, but what are the real solutions to them?


So, why do pilots need a union?

I'd like to see pilots take over an airline and run it the way they want. They should have the most 'skin in the game'.

Rob R

If airlines raised airfares from $99 to wherever Steve thinks they should be, clearly fewer people would (be able to afford to) fly. Fewer passengers --> fewer flights --> fewer jobs.

Where should the prices be to maximize quality and safety across the board, from service to work conditions for airline employees? How many airlines and routes would be left? Would air travel be affordable to the common man? Maybe air travel for the common man just isn't an economically viable business.


Nuance isn't everything. Sometimes things just need to be said and there just aren't subtleties.


I really don't get how 'foreign takeover is bad' follows from anything you just said.

In fact, I was sort of under the impression that foreign carriers are a lot higher quality than American ones, and I am also given to understand that they even have money too.

Clarification anybody? Honestly, I just can't think of how foreign management would have less regard for flight quality than american management already does and would be interested in hearing the argument.

Bob Wortman

The skills involved in flying an airplane are overrated. (My pilot friends would agree) It is only the consequences of the mistakes that make us think of this as an elite profession. There should be regulations about rest requirements just as there should for bus and truck drivers. The pay for an occupation is determined by supply and demand. If you have a bunch of young pilots willing to fly for low wages, oh well. You aren't going to raise their experience or skill level but having a pilot minimum wage. Flyers don't think they are "entitled" to fly anywhere for $99. Airlines in intense competition for butts to put in the seats are cutting costs to lower prices. That's how competition works.