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Originally published Wednesday, February 25, 2009 at 12:00 AM

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Pilot who landed plane in Hudson River slams pay cuts by airlines

The veteran pilot who successfully ditched Flight 1549 in the Hudson River last month told the House aviation subcommittee Tuesday that harsh pay cuts are driving experienced pilots from the cockpit.

The Associated Press

WASHINGTON — The veteran pilot who successfully ditched Flight 1549 in the Hudson River last month told the House aviation subcommittee Tuesday that harsh pay cuts are driving experienced pilots from the cockpit.

Meanwhile, the air-traffic controller who handled the flight thought landing in the river amounted to a death sentence for all aboard.

"People don't survive landings on the Hudson River," 10-year veteran controller Patrick Harten told the subcommittee in his first public description of how he tried to land the jetliner that lost power in both jets when it hit Canada geese after takeoff from New York's LaGuardia Airport.

"I thought it was his own death sentence," Harten said of the moment when US Airways pilot Chesley Sullenberger radioed that he was going into the river.

Defying the odds, Sullenberger delicately glided the Airbus A320 down in one piece and all 155 people aboard survived the Jan. 15 water landing.

Sullenberger, 58, who joined a US Airways predecessor in 1980, and his co-pilot, Jeffrey B. Skiles, told the panel that experienced pilots are quitting because of deep cuts in their pay and benefits.

Skiles said that unless federal laws are revised to improve labor-management relations, "experienced crews in the cockpit will be a thing of the past." Sullenberger added that without experienced pilots "we will see negative consequences to the flying public."

Sullenberger testified that his pay has been cut 40 percent in recent years and his pension has been terminated and replaced with a promise "worth pennies on the dollar" from the federally created Pension Benefit Guaranty Corp. These cuts followed a wave of airline bankruptcies after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks compounded by the current recession, he said.

He said the problems began with deregulation of the industry in the 1970s. Then "the bankruptcies were used by some as a fishing expedition to get what they could not get in normal times," Sullenberger said of the airlines.

The reduced compensation has placed "pilots and their families in an untenable financial situation," Sullenberger said. "I do not know a single professional airline pilot who wants his or her children to follow in their footsteps."

Sullenberger himself has started a consulting business to help make ends meet. Skiles added: "For the last six years, I have worked seven days a week between my two jobs just to maintain a middle-class standard of living."

At the hearing, Sullenberger turned to the opposite end of the table toward Harten and told him he was grateful to have him in the control tower and was "greatly touched" by his account.

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Joining Sullenberger, Skiles and Harten were the flight attendants who helped evacuate the plane, Sheila Dail, Doreen Welsh and Donna Dent.

The subcommittee chairman, Rep. Jerry Costello, D-Ill., said after the hearing that maintaining a focus on safety as the industry adjusts to challenging economic times would be a priority when Congress considers legislation reauthorizing the Federal Aviation Administration.

Also

Safety suit: Airline-safety advocates filed a lawsuit Tuesday to force the U.S. Department of Transportation to adopt long-standing safety recommendations in the wake of a deadly plane crash in New York earlier this month. The National Air Disaster Alliance/Foundation listed recommendations made in 1996 that focus on aircraft performance in icing conditions, spurred by the 1994 crash of an American Eagle flight in Roselawn, Ind., that killed 68 people.

Weather changes: Unions representing air-traffic controllers are opposing a proposal to consolidate dozens of meteorologists scattered around the nation into two centers, saying it could deprive airports of local and on-the-spot weather expertise crucial to flight crews. The Federal Aviation Administration is considering whether to consolidate the 84 meteorologists serving at 21 air centers across the nation to two major centers in Kansas City, Mo., and College Park, Md. The FAA said there is no final proposal yet. The agency on Monday extended a response period to the plan by 30 days.

Copyright © 2009 The Seattle Times Company

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