Capt. Sully Exclusive: Airline Industry Must Take Care of Tired Pilots

US Airways says Capt. Chesley "Sully" Sullenberger will be part of its flight operations safety management team.
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Capt. Chesley "Sully" Sullenberger, hero pilot of the "Miracle on the Hudson," said that without proper rest, his life-saving landing in the Hudson River may not have been possible.

"I'm convinced that had we been tired, had we not gotten sufficient rest the night before, we could not have performed at the same level... I may not have been able to perform as well," Sullenberger told ABC News of the Jan. 15, 2009, incident in which he landed US Airways flight 1549 in the middle of New York's Hudson River, saving 155 lives. "The fact that we got so much so right so quickly under that sudden stress is a testament, not only to our training, but the fact that we had a chance to get sufficient rest."

Sullenberger's comments came following an ABC News investigation which found pilots across the country are reporting to duty after being able to grab only a few hours of sleep on the couches and chairs of crew lounges or in crowded dormitory-style "crash pads" with up to a dozen other pilots or crew members. Industry officials denied a large number of pilots fly on little sleep.

CLICK HERE to watch ABC News' exclusive interview with Capt. Sullenberger.

But Sullenberger, who retired after his famous Hudson landing, said pilot fatigue is an industry-wide problem and has called for improved, regulated sleep scheduling to ensure pilots are properly rested before taking off with an airplane full of passengers.

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Pilots can earn as little as $17,000 a year, and many who are based in expensive hub cities choose to live far away in more affordable towns and "commute" to the airports where they work. The airlines do not provide these "commuter" pilots with sleeping accommodations before they report for duty. Sullenberger said their commutes cut down dangerously on limited resting time, and their low salaries mean many junior pilots cannot afford proper hotel rooms, meaning they resort to crash pads and sofa naps in crew lounges.

"We have to create a situation in which it's possible" for pilots to get a good, affordable night's sleep, he said. "We have to value this profession enough that people don't have to live out of a crash pad or a crew room."

CLICK HERE to go inside a crash pad and crew lounge.

The rest, Sullenberger said, is "crucially important" for everyone on board.

In the course of the ABC News investigation, other current and former pilots described fatigue as a factor in missing radio calls, entering incorrect readings in instruments and even falling asleep in mid-flight.

"The interesting thing about fatigue is, it's insidious. It's not always obvious that it's affecting you," he said. Beyond missing relatively small things, Sullenberger said a bigger concern is when fatigue affects a pilot's judgment.

"If on the last landing of the night, when the weather's bad, if you're approach isn't quite stabilized, and you need to go around and try again, you have to have that willingness, that energy to be able to say, 'This isn't right. I've got to act now,'" he said.

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Plane Crash After Pilot Sleeps in Crew Lounge

When asked if he feared something bad could come out of such pilot fatigue, Sullenberger said "It has already happened."

Two years ago Continental Connection flight 3407, operated by Colgan Air, crashed in Buffalo, New York, killing 50 people. The pilot of the plane had spent the night before sleeping in a crew lounge at Newark Airport. The co-pilot spent the morning there as well, after hitching rides on Fed Ex planes overnight from Seattle so she could make the flight.

"We did recognize that they were likely impaired by fatigue," says Deborah Hersmann, Chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board.

The NTSB also found that about 70 percent of the Colgan Air pilots based at Newark were commuters, many coming from long distances to work. Approximately 20 percent commuted from more than 1,000 miles away.

In the past 20 years, more than two dozen accidents and more than 250 fatalities have been linked to pilot fatigue, according to the NTSB.

Undercover video taken inside crew lounges by pilots was provided to ABC News shows pilots bundled up in chairs or splayed over couches in the middle of the lounges. One pilot wore the sleeping masks provided to passengers on planes to help keep out the early morning light.

The so-called "crash pads" can be found within blocks of most major airports, part of an underground world that is secret only to the public. Inside one crash pad near LaGuardia airport in New York, stacks of triple-decker bunk beds are crammed into a room. There are 28 beds in all in a three-story row home -- "hot bunks" that rent for $25 a night.

"That's who their pilot is going to be," said one current pilot flying for a regional airline who took undercover videos and photos from inside airport crew lounges in New York and Philadelphia. "Do they want a well-rested pilot when they take that 6 a.m. flight out of Washington D.C. or do you want a guy who just slept in the crew room?"

Photos and video provided to ABC News by concerned pilots show where many are getting their rest at base, often in expensive hub cities where hotels and apartments -- even crash pads -- are expensive.

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Sullenberger said he's tried to use his sudden celebrity to advocate for changes in the industry, but has seen a lack of interest in the industry and airlines alike.

"It's difficult to get people to agree that it's important enough, that it matters enough to do what it would take to fix it," he said.

The Federal Aviation Administration's proposed rule-making on flight-time/duty-time will do some things to help tired pilots. The rules will increase the mandatory rest period pilots, currently 8 hours, and decrease the maximum length of a pilot's work day, which is currently 16 hours. But in some cases, the number of hours a pilot can fly each day could increase.

Neither the Airline Pilots Association, the country's largest pilot union, nor the airline industry trade group, the Air Transport Association, would sit down with ABC News for an interview on fatigue and commuting pilots, though Jean Medina of the ATA provided a written statement.

"The safety of our customers and our employees is our top priority, and we agree with the FAA that pilots must act responsibly, and only fly when rested," wrote Medina. "Our industry's outstanding safety record is a result of the strong commitment of all stakeholders, including our professional flight crews who understand their obligation to report to work rested and prepared to fly."

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Linda Shotwell, head of ALPA communications, thanked ABC News for requesting an interview on pilot fatigue, but said in an email, "Unfortunately, we do not have anyone available at this time."

Sullenberger said that even with the FAA's proposed changes, it still may not be enough.

"[The crash pads] are symptomatic of a larger, industry-wide problem," he said. "Our society has to value this profession in such a way that they are compensated in a way that's possible for them to have a chance, a place to get sufficient rest."

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