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An airline pilot with many years of experience and skill and a whole lot of grace under pressure last month did what was considered by many to have been impossible: he ditched a plane in the January-cold Hudson River at New York City and lost not a single one of the 155 passengers and crew who were on board.

Even though a passenger, in a state of panic, cracked open a door through which water started to enter the cabin, the crew remained calm and, following the instructions of the captain, Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger, directed every passenger to the proper escape chutes, where they awaited rescue by both private boats and emergency craft.

What kept the 58-year-old Sully on the job? His matter-of-fact actions - as if he’d practiced that very procedure just before - were the result of education, training, and plenty of experience flying the plane-filled skies over the U.S.

That kind of performance under fire doesn’t just come from watching disaster movies. It comes with the years Sullenberger has put in, flying under every condition in a variety of planes and knowing what should be done in every circumstance.

Sullenberger responded with what is generally known as seasoning and airlines should be looking to keep that kind of talent in the cockpits, no matter what it takes. What kept the 58-year-old Sully on the job, instead of retiring with a well-earned pension? It appears that it might be that he had to work, had to keep working.

Toward the end of a long working life, he should have been able to look forward to the benefits he’d earned in those dedicated years of service - but the airline cut his pay 40 percent and replaced his pension with what the Associated Press reported he described as “a promise worth pennies on the dollar,” when he appeared this week before the U.S. House of Representatives aviation subcommittee.

Starting with the deregulation of the airline industry, the problems continued and culminated with the bankruptcies of airline companies after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, when planes weren’t flying and, when they did, fewer passengers were boarding.

The airlines, like other industries, took advantage of the panic and the turmoil in their deregulated markets and demanded – and usually received - concessions from their workers. When fear of flying took hold among the flying public, airlines demanded even more from their workers and used the fear that was generated by official Washington to seek even more concessions.

Over time, many resigned or accepted buy-outs, or tried to make-do with what they had left on the job. Some opened up businesses that they could run in their off time. Overall, however, the result was that fewer experienced and seasoned pilots are in the cockpits. Others found themselves learning new skills, when there was market for them.

In testimony before the House this week, according to the AP, there was a not so subtle warning to those in Congress who oversee the airline industry in its deregulated state, both from Sullenberger and his co-pilot, Jeffrey B. Skiles, who told the panel that experienced pilots are leaving because they no longer can afford to work at low wages, with deep cuts in their benefits and pensions.

And Sullenberger warned that, if things continue as they have in the industry, there will be “negative consequences to the flying public.” It didn’t take much imagination to get the meaning of their testimony.

The airline industry has made sure there will be few experienced pilots and crews in the air and the reason is that, in cutting costs at the expense of everything else, the airline companies go after the highest cost workers - the older, experienced, seasoned workers, including the pilots and flight crews. These should be the most valuable employees, because safe flying should be the top priority for those who run the airline companies. But cutting their pay and benefits or offering them buy-outs is the quickest way to reduce labor costs, while not threatening the salaries, perks, bonuses, and benefits of top management.

What Sullenberger and Skiles told the committee is significant not only for the airline industry, but for American industry, in general.

For the past 30 years or more, employers and whole industries in the U.S. have been busy “de-skilling” the country. In industries from auto to steel to electronics to food - virtually every sector of American life - companies have been busy dumbing-down the work, making the work simple enough that anyone can do it with minimal training for $8 or $10 an hour.

The mantra of Corporate America has been and is: We’re moving to a service economy, so get used to it. It’s low wages and no benefits. Get used to it. We’re moving industrial and manufacturing production to other countries where the work will be done for 10 percent of the labor costs. Get used to it.

This has been going on for decades and the result is that the highly skilled and motivated workers - professional, production or service - are earning less and working longer at the lower rates, many without the hope of a retirement income.

Sullenberger is not an anomaly. When he leaves, who will be there to teach and mentor those who will be in the cockpit when some future emergency occurs? Steady hands at the helm are needed to perform this vital function, in the airline industry and in American industry, overall.

But, they’re not there. They have been driven out by the bottom-line mentality of Corporate America. Service to the people and the nation goes out the window, when the quarterly profit report is due.

It would be smart if the rabid deregulators in government and the corporations took a quick look at our financial and economic condition, to see what those policies and philosophies have brought down on the country. It would be smart if they had a look at what their profit-at-all-costs policies have done to the American people.

Sullenberger’s warning about airline passengers’ safety - in the context of airline companies’ de-skilling of the industry - could well stand as a warning to all the masters of industry in America: You’re forcing out those who know the most, who made your profits and who are at the top of their game. When they’re gone, you have no comparable pool of workers and no prospect of replacing them anytime soon. Columnist, John Funiciello, is a labor organizer and former union organizer. His union work started when he became a local president of The Newspaper Guild in the early 1970s. He was a reporter for 14 years for newspapers in New York State. In addition to labor work, he is organizing family farmers as they struggle to stay on the land under enormous pressure from factory food producers and land developers. Click here to contact Mr. Funiciello.

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February 26, 2009
Issue 313

is published every Thursday

Executive Editor:
Bill Fletcher, Jr.
Managing Editor:
Nancy Littlefield
Peter Gamble
Est. April 5, 2002
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