Captain "Sully" Sullenberger earned a hero status when he executed a perfect emergency water landing in the Hudson River a month ago. Against overwhelming odds, he saved the lives of 155 people. We owe it to Sullenberger to pay attention to what he is telling us about America's deregulated airline industry. Sullenberger told Congress two weeks ago that he "did not know a single professional airline pilot who wants his or her children to follow in their footsteps."
Sullenberger described a system where pilots' salaries have been cut by 40%, pensions are basically worthless, and the best talent is shying away from the profession.
The deregulation crusaders love to tell us that the "invisible hand" of the free market will always work more efficiently without regulations. It is the same argument that now looks insanely foolish when we review the failed history of the banking industry and the securities industry.
The corporate dominated think-tank talkers years ago convinced Jimmy Carter that if he would relax governmental oversight of the airline industry, wonderful things would occur.
Service to customers would improve and more jobs would be created. We were told that the invisible hand of the market would allow carriers to build more financially sustainable businesses.
But what's the reality?
Since deregulation, more than 150 airlines have filed for bankruptcy. Most of those new, efficient airlines that were going to create new jobs in an unregulated system of mergers and restructuring crashed and burned. If you want a comparison between a regulated and a deregulated industry, it's important to point out that for a full 25 years before deregulation, no airline had declared bankruptcy.
As established airlines such as Eastern and Pan American sought bankruptcy protection, the bonus for management is that they could tell career employees like Sullenberger that management was not obligated to make good on their promises about pensions or job security. More than 100,000 airline industry jobs have been lost since deregulation began. Most people barely remember the upstart airlines that were going to improve air travel. It is true that Aloha, Frontier and People's Express sold us cheaper fares to more cities for several years. But that kind of price-only analysis is weak for air travelers who tell stories about sitting on a tarmac for three hours after their previous flight was cancelled because no crew was available. Or they might tell the story about delays because no parts could be found to fix a broken down jet waiting to depart a gate that is in chaos because two flights are still waiting to unload. We should all be listening to Sully Sullenberger as he talks about his disappointment with America's deregulated airline industry.
Even congressmen with their hands out to lobbyists can't ignore the words of a hero. As Sullenberger continues to speak out, he should make it clear that all the pilots and crews who are still operating in this atmosphere of deregulated disaster truly are heroes.
There certainly has been an invisible hand at work in this deregulated industry. It is an invisible hand that has slapped all of us around for years.