How to Get Capt. Sully Sullenberger as Your Pilot and Other Tips for Picking the Safest Flight

When picking airlines, how do you choose the safest flight?

September 29, 2009, 6:03 PM

Sept. 30, 2009— -- The U.S. Airways pilot who safely landed his jet on New York's Hudson River after a collision with geese killed power in both engines is about to return to the skies.

Capt. Chesley "Sully" Sullenberger will soon be back at the helm of passenger jets and it is likely that after his incredible landing on Jan. 15 -- dubbed the Miracle on the Hudson -- passengers everywhere will clamor to be on his flights.

But even if you can't get Sullenberger as your pilot, there are still a number of steps you can take to stay safe in the air.

While it might not seem natural to cruise six miles up in the air over the country, it is a lot safer than driving from coast to coast.

"First of all, by any measure … this is the safest form of transportation in the history of mankind," said John Nance, an aviation expert and ABC News consultant. "Day by day, seven days a week, 365 day a year, almost nothing goes wrong."

Airplanes are designed with multiple redundant systems and Nance pointed out that over a five-year period starting at the end of 2001, the country went without a single fatality on a commercial airline.

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US Airways isn't saying much about Sullenberger's return to the cockpit. It should be soon and he will also take on a role as part of the airline's flight operations safety management team.

Sullenberger's return couldn't come at a better time for the airline industry. Today, airlines are among the most-hated businesses out there. Pilots have gone from once being everyday heroes -- think back to Pam Am pilots in the 1960s -- to now being seen as just another cog in the big corporate machinery.

Sully's Safety Video?

Expect Sullenberger to play a big role in the airline's marketing campaign.

Maybe his new book -- due out about the same time he could return to the cockpit -- will be serialized in the in-flight magazine. Or he might make a cameo on the in-flight safety video, said Richard Levick, president and CEO of Levick Strategic Communications, a crisis communications firm.

"When you're comparing airlines, having the brand of safety is an incredibly powerful brand," Levick said. "In the market place, everything takes place in the mind. So it's all about perception. Perception trumps reality.

"Up until this," he added, "US Airways' brand was the airline that went bankrupt twice."

At the same point, Levick warned that the airline can't overplay it. Sullenberger could be part of some television advertising but can't dominate. Maybe some frequent fliers meet with him. The real trick will be to elongate it so that a year or two from now Sullenberger and US Airways will come up in Internet searches for "safest airline."

Robert Passikoff, founder and president of Brand Keys, a branding consulting firm, said US Airways should build an ad campaign around Sullenberger. The message: we have "an authentic hero" and while you might not fly with Sully, all of our people are like this guy.

"These days, generally speaking, the airlines don't really have any real point of differentiation," Passikoff said. "In fact most people don't care very much for airlines. Talk to people about them and you hear: They're always late, or they're always crowded, or they're charging you to check baggage. Most people don't have good things to say about airlines."

So how do you get Sully as your pilot?

There is no way to guarantee a seat on his plane, or at least no way that US Airways has announced yet. (Granted, in the age of baggage fees etc., one could imagine the highly improbable "Sully Surcharge" to have him as your pilot.) But by choosing your flights wisely, you might be able to tip the odds in your favor.

Picking Sully's Flights

US Airways has 3,096 daily flight departures and 4,194 pilots. Almost two-thirds of those flights are operated by US Airways Express. Sullenberger only flies for the mainline US Airways, which has 1,199 daily flights. So first off, choose one of those.

That typically requires reading the fine print when booking a ticket. For instance, if you fly between Myrtle Beach, S.C., and the airline's hub in Charlotte, N.C., on flight 3212 you will actually be on a flight operated by Republic Airlines doing business as US Airways Express.

The next thing to consider is what type of aircraft you will be on. Sullenberger only flies Airbus 319 and 320 jets -- displayed on the airline's Web site as A319 and A320. US Airways only has 93 and 68 of those jets, respectively, so pick wisely. If you end up on a Boeing 737 or an Airbus A330, there's no chance Sullenberger will be at the helm.

Granted, you might do all that planning and it could be his day off.

Nance said that shouldn't matter. Sullenberger is credited with saving the lives of 155 people, and Nance said Sullenberger did everything right, but that doesn't mean that Sullenberger is the only one who could have landed that plane safely.

"There was no miracle: 80 percent of the airline pilots out there would have done the same thing," Nance said. "There are tens of thousands of Sullys flying out there."

Pilots are trained to handle any situation and multiple procedures are supposed to take the variables and risk out of flight, Nance said.

But what about those regional airlines? Often when buying a ticket on the mainline carriers a segment might be operated by a smaller, regional airline often with younger, less experienced and lower-paid pilots.

Take the Continental Express flight, operated by Pinnacle Airlines' Colgan Air, that crashed before landing in Buffalo in February. Rebecca Shaw, the 24-year-old co-pilot of that plane earned $23,900 a year. Sullenberger was paid more than $100,000 a year at the time of the Hudson River crash. His first officer, Jeffrey Skiles was paid about $70,000.

Flights to Avoid

Nance said pay alone should not be a factor. All airline pilots go through the same rigorous training, he said. However, the pay issue can't be ignored.

Both of the pilots in the Continental Express crash commuted long distances -- from Florida and Seattle -- to start their work days. While salary in itself might not be an issue, Nance said, the fact that it often leads commuter jet pilots to commute many extra hours can hurt safety.

Still, Nance said, the regional airlines have cleaned up their act from the 1980s and are generally as safe as the mainline carriers.

In February testimony before Congress, Sullenberger said that his "decision to remain in the profession I love has come at a great financial cost to me and to my family." He said his pay has been cut 40 percent and his airline pension is now "worth only pennies on the dollar."

"Please do not think I exaggerate when I say that I do not know a single professional airline pilot who wants his or her children to follow in their footsteps," he said. "I am worried that the airline piloting profession will not be able to continue to attract the best and the brightest."

So are there any airlines to avoid?

Yes, Nance said, but mostly in Africa, maybe Russia and some other developing nations.

"This is worse than trying to find out what doctors to avoid," he said.

Perhaps the easier thing to do, is to check out the European Union's list of airlines that are banned from operating in European airspace. Most of these airlines don't actually fly to Europe, but it's a good starting point for concern.

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