ATW Editor's Blog

Sully’s misleading statements on US ATC reform

by Karen Walker
Aug 10, 2017

Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger, the pilot who landed a US Airways A320 on the Hudson River in New York, is campaigning against moves to reform and modernize the US air traffic management (ATM) system. Aside from misrepresenting the issue, Sullenberger accuses US airlines of “putting cost reduction ahead of safety”; that’s a shameful lie.

The Alliance for Aviation Across America (AAAA) has posted two videos featuring Sullenberger, describing him as “hero captain” and “hero of the Hudson”. In each, Sullenberger speaks directly to the camera. In the newest video, he says he has been involved in aviation for 44% of its history and he “knows what works and what doesn’t.”

He then questions why air traffic control – an “important and valuable national asset” – should be given to the big airlines which, he says, “put expedience and cost reduction ahead of the safety of others in the long term”.

This massively over-simplifies and misconstrues what is being attempted: to place the US ATM system under the governance of a private, nonprofit entity with a board made up of airlines, unions, airports and federal officials. FAA would still oversee the organization, but it would be free of the annual budget constraints and uncertainties that currently prevent long-term investment in technologies that would greatly increase the efficiencies and capacity of the US ATM system. Without those investments and long-term planning, the system will become gridlocked. Indeed, FAA reauthorization is once again under threat this year and the agency could see a partial shutdown.

As a former pilot at a major airline, Sullenberger is fully aware of the congestion and inefficiencies that the US ATM system suffers. He also knows that no airline would want or permit a less safe air traffic control system. Yet here he is, using his “hero” status to imply that airlines “who continue to make your airline seats smaller” are willing to endanger the air traffic control system.

That’s complete nonsense. New technologies would make the ATM system safer. Secure, long-term funding would eliminate shutdowns and create a 21st century-worthy system.The type of organization the US is looking to create would mirror those established in places such as Canada, the UK and New Zealand, which all operate far more efficiently, with greater technology and at least as safely as the US.

Such a system is largely supported by the US air traffic controllers – who want new technology – and the Air Line Pilots Association. For a good summary of the benefits from a commercial pilot’s perspective, take a look at ALPA’s advocacy brief.

Yes, some general aviation pilots are concerned about higher fees under a new ATC system. But that’s a private pilot cost issue, not a commercial airline safety issue. Airlines will not run the system, as Sullenberger says. Nor will it be a “privatized” system.

Sullenberger is entitled to cash in on his hero status, but it’s wrong to use that status to mislead people who are not as familiar with the commercial aviation system as he is, but who trust his word.

Karen Walker karen.walker@penton.com

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