Wednesday, Oct. 21, 2009

Pilot Error

It took Captain Chesley Sullenberger less than five minutes to become a hero, from the moment his Airbus A320 hit a flock of geese on Jan. 15 to its safe splashdown in the Hudson. For Captain Timothy Cheney and First Officer Richard Cole, it took an hour and a half of radio silence to become national punching bags. After their Northwest Airlines flight shot past its Minneapolis destination at 37,000 ft., air-traffic controllers feared the worst: A hijacking? A flight-deck catastrophe? After 91 minutes, the pilots resurfaced, saying they'd been absorbed in their laptops, reviewing a new crew schedule. On Oct. 27 the FAA revoked their licenses; commercial flying is a game with no room for error. And yet pilots' jobs are getting harder. Cost-cutting has trimmed starting pay at major airlines to $36,000 — little more than a grade-school teacher's. Multiple short flights make it difficult for regional pilots to squeeze in adequate rest. The national air-traffic system relies on antiquated radio and radar; a teenager with an iPhone has more-advanced technology. There are ways to make the skies safer. Improving life in the cockpit would be a start.