Flight 1549 crew lambastes relations between airline management and labour

Washington DC
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Crew members of the US Airways Airbus A320 that ditched into the Hudson River in New York on 15 January are calling for an overhaul of rules governing US contract negotiations.

Using leverage gained from the successful water landing Captain Chesley Sullenberger and First Officer Jeffrey Skiles took an opportunity today during a Congressional hearing to highlight that during the last eight years through the fallout of the September 2001 attacks, bankruptcies and mergers "management teams who have used airline employees as an ATM have left the people who work for airlines in the United States with extreme economic difficulties", says Sullenberger.

The captain explains his pay has fallen by 40%, while Skiles says he "personally earns half of what I once earned". Both pilots say they've lost their pensions to a Pension Benefit Guarantee Corporation (PBGC) promise of "pennies on the dollar".

Skiles was once a US Airways captain, but now flies as a first officer due to cutbacks. He tells members of the US House aviation subcommittee many pilots, including both he and Sullenberger, split their focus from piloting to an alternative business or career to "maintain a middle class standard of living".

Sullenberger is worried these circumstances are driving talent away from piloting to more lucrative professions. "When my company offered pilots who had been laid off the chance to return to work, 60% refused."

Revamping a negotiating process that drags "out for years in stagnation" could help remedy the broken framework of management-labor contract discussions, says Skiles. He's imploring Congress to establish specific time frames for mediated negotiations, and consider revamping the Railway Labor Act that has governed airline contract negotiations since 1936.

Skiles says the RLA obviously by design works more effectively at protecting railroad employees rather than their counterparts at airlines, whose contracts are "easily abrogated".

The arguments by the pilots appear to have gained traction among committee members as Representative John Hall of New York says he is "shocked to learn" that a captain and first officer are working second jobs so they can continue flying. He notes the situation something the subcommittee should examine and "rectify".

Legislators asked Sullenberger directly if a specific labour law governing aviation was necessary. The captain says the most pressing need is a level playing field that encourages both sides to negotiate in good faith within a reasonable time frame.