Always Looking at the Data

By Capt. Joe DePete, ALPA President

As we collectively navigate the hardships and tragedy of COVID-19, the photos found on these pages are a welcome reminder of why our profession always inspires. Our front-row seat to spectacular views is unmatched, but as the saying goes, things may not always be as they seem. Only those informed by the data recognize that the familiar beauty apparent to all isn’t always representative of what’s truly taking place.

In the early days, airline pilots took enormous safety risks every time they went to work. Without a collectively bargained agreement, pilots had little protection when raising safety issues, and doing so often cost them their jobs. During these first days of commercial flying, the need for a culture of safety became strikingly clear.

Because of ALPA pilots’ dedication, the safety culture concept has developed over the decades. When the Commercial Aviation Safety Team (CAST) began work in 1997, the model used accident data and later voluntary safety data to identify the best actions to prevent airline accidents. CAST urged collaboration among management, labor, manufacturers, and the regulator to analyze past accident and incident data as well as data from industry safety reporting programs. The innovative approach reduced the fatality risk for commercial aviation in the United States by 83 percent in only 10 years.

Today, thanks in no small part to decades of work by ALPA members, the value of a proactive safety culture is widely recognized in the United States and Canada. Now, ALPA pilots are expanding the potential of these safety efforts to assist other users of the national airspace system.

As a member of the FAA’s Drone Advisory Committee, ALPA has worked to help the drone community adopt recommendations to develop a culture of safety. While many unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) operators have safely operated in the airspace for years, we’re encouraging all UAS operators to embrace a culture of safety.

Similarly, we believe a risk-predictive approach based on a strong safety culture will be necessary as the aviation and commercial space industries work to integrate more spaceflight operations into the national airspace. ALPA is also promoting a culture of safety elsewhere in the international airline industry. We recently reached out to the prime minister of Pakistan to support communications with the Pakistan Air Line Pilots Association and offered our union’s assistance following the Pakistan International Airlines Flight 8303 accident.

It’s also important to remember that ALPA members do more than participate in safety reporting programs—we create our own. For ALPA pilots who don’t already have access to a pilot-group–specific reporting system, our Data Action Report program (DART) allows members to submit information and improve our industry. To date, ALPA pilots have contributed more than 4,000 DARTs in dozens of categories.

ALPA also pushes to adapt data-collection programs to help address emerging issues. For example, we recently modified the DART system to include COVID-19–related topics such as furlough, health, jumpseat, security, and training. Our union’s Air Safety Organization pilot leaders and staff have used the data to make key safety and health advancements, including a call to create industrywide guidelines for cleaning and sanitizing aircraft cabins and flight decks.

Recently, our airlines’ need to deliver COVID-19 vaccines reinforces airline pilots’ vital role—defined by our proactive, unwavering culture of safety. As we have since the onset of the pandemic, airline pilots will proudly assume this responsibility, but we need our governments to do their part.

ALPA’s asks of Congress and Parliament are driven by our safety culture and data. We’re calling for airline-specific relief to keep individual airline pilots trained and current so that we can seamlessly continue our essential role in the vaccine’s supply chain. Because our all-cargo flight crews have recently experienced an alarming increase in COVID-19 exposure and infections, we’re also asking for pilots to be among those granted priority access to vaccines.

Our union’s unapologetic focus on safety and data may be inconvenient to those who only see the surface, but like the generations of airline pilots before us, we embrace our role as the conscience of the industry. At the same time, we won’t concede our front-row views of our magnificent aircraft and Earth’s exquisite beauty.