While nothing can fully prepare one for an emergency, such as when my crew and I landed Flight 1549 in the Hudson River eight years ago, it was a lifetime of experience that we each drew upon to enable us to face that sudden ultimate challenge.
I learned to fly 50 years ago. The Wright brothers first flew 114 years ago this December, so I’ve been flying for nearly half of the entire history of aviation. I’ve seen what works and what doesn’t.
I care deeply about being able to fly, about people’s access to aviation, every facet of aviation. Many people don’t know that most of aviation is not commercial airline flying. That’s how a lot of people travel, but in terms of total airplanes and numbers of operations, there’s much more to aviation in this country.
There are general aviation flights, military aircraft, flight training, civil air patrol, transport of medical supplies and blood, disaster relief — one needs to look no further than how integral aviation has been in helping people to access parts of the country that were ravaged by natural disaster.
We have a wonderful, unique freedom and privilege in this country — an unfettered aviation system that anyone can participate in safely and efficiently. Simply put, our aviation system is the biggest, the best and the most diverse in the world. And it is constantly improving. In most other countries, it’s either too restrictive or too expensive for an average person to fly, and the only way one can fly is to go on an airliner or a military flight. Yet, if you hear the commercial airlines lately, they are telling us these are exactly the types of systems they want to emulate in their drive to privatize air traffic control.
The airlines are making a push in Congress to take this big, diverse, national asset that serves so many different communities, aircraft and purposes and put it under the control of a narrow board that would run air traffic control according to their own interest. They say it would be easier to manage — but easier for whom? They want to remove oversight of the air traffic control system from the Federal Aviation Administration and Congress, and give it to a narrow group of stakeholders dominated by the largest airlines. That benefits only the largest airlines, not the American people.
If we go down this road, I’m worried about access. I’m worried about equitability. And I’m worried about safety. Why would we give our air traffic control system to the same people who shrink your airline seats, nickel-and-dime you, and set sky-high prices for people trying to flee a hurricane? Are these the people we want running our country’s aviation system that oversees over 87,000 flights per day? The same people who charge you an arm and a leg to check your bags and then lose them?
The commercial airlines and their allies are telling Congress that they need to free up authorization of FAA funding and get it out of Congress. But the only thing holding up funding of our FAA is the commercial airlines and their attempts to attach air traffic control privatization to every bipartisan FAA reauthorization bill. That recently resulted in 23 short-term extensions and the stalling of many critical, long-term funding projects.
The airlines, as a business, have their own agenda, but it is not our American agenda. There is a reason that local communities, consumer groups and voters overwhelmingly oppose the idea of air traffic control privatization. It is a bad idea, and it would benefit only one industry.
Passengers deserve better. Our communities deserve better. America deserves better. We must protect and preserve our aviation system’s basic fairness, safety, security and access.
Captain Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger, a safety expert, speaker and author, serves on the Transportation Department’s Advisory Committee for Automation in Transportation, and still flies privately.