Furlough Resources: ALPA Is Here to Help You Navigate the Curves Ahead

By John Perkinson, Senior Staff Writer

The COVID-19 pandemic has far-reaching implications for continued airline operating levels. While the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act in the United States and the Canada Emergency Wage Subsidy have provided carriers—and their employees—with short-term financial assistance and a brief respite to consider their options, involuntary furloughs and other displacements are inevitable. As recently as April, Trans States Airlines and Compass Airlines permanently closed their doors, and many other carriers have had to dramatically suspend the bulk of their operations until passenger demand returns.

To prepare for these changes, ALPA has assembled a network of programs, services, and guidance members can use to address their own unique circumstances. Within ALPA’s Professional Development Group (PDG), the Membership Committee and its Furloughed Pilots Support Program (FPSP) are spearheading this effort. Working with the rest of the Association’s committee structure and professional staff, they’re examining industry trends to coordinate the most beneficial assistance available for affected ALPA pilots and their families.

“We know thousands of our members have already received furlough notices, and without additional government aid there will likely be even more,” said Capt. Bill Couette, ALPA’s vice president−administration/secretary, who oversees the PDG. “While no one could have predicted the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on our industry, ALPA has programs to address every phase of a member’s career—including furloughs—and the union continues to look for new ways we can help during this challenging time.”

“I know from personal experience what it’s like to lose your job,” remarked F/O Kandy Bernskoetter (FedEx Express), ALPA’s Membership Committee chair. Her former carrier shut down without warning one year after 9/11. “The sense of loss and disconnection, coupled with the fear of not knowing what’s going to happen, can be overwhelming. That’s why it’s so important for ALPA to remain engaged with these members when industry emergencies like this occur,” she said.

The COVID-19 pandemic has drastically disrupted airline operations around the globe and has forever changed the way health is viewed as a component of aviation safety. To help members navigate the curves ahead, ALPA has established a comprehensive network of in-house programs and an extensive arrangement with benefits specialists and other service providers.

Lending a Hand

“Whether you’re sitting short-call reserve or you’re a seasoned line holder, the COVID-19 pandemic is going to affect you,” said Capt. Drew Everett (Hawaiian), ALPA’s FPSP coordinator. “The FPSP was created to share information and offer recommendations to empower our members to take control of their circumstances. Much of what the FPSP makes available can be accessed at www.alpa.org/furlough. While we can provide all kinds of useful tools and assistance, it’s up to each of us to take advantage of these resources and put them to good use.”

“The resources on the FPSP site are extremely helpful,” said Capt. Kelly Birkett (Mesa), her pilot group’s furlough coordinator. “I’m thankful to have a place to refer active pilots when they express concern about furloughs and all the scary things that can come along with that word.

“I think the checklist series is particularly useful in helping pilots in what sometimes feels like a situation that’s completely out of their control,” she observed. “Just like on the airplane, pilots naturally strive to maintain positive control. These checklists give us the tools to use during challenging times in this industry.”

For example, the “Planning for the Unknown” checklist highlights the importance of pilots being aware of the current state of their benefits and how to prepare for what might be around the corner. It outlines how to build an action plan for the future and why it’s important to stay informed. With things changing so rapidly, there isn’t always concrete information available to make the best decisions.

“While on the surface some of these details may seem apparent, they can be easily overlooked in a crisis situation. These checklists are a solid foundation for moving forward,” Everett added. “The fear associated with this kind of event often leads to a sense of paralysis, and checklists can promote a feeling of normalcy and purpose for those affected.”

Other checklists on the website include “Preparing for a Furlough” and “Preparing for a Furlough−MEC Guidance,” which offers step-by-step instructions pilot group leaders can use to better support their members. Another checklist addresses “Dealing with an Airline Shutdown.” The entire checklist series is largely designed from pilot feedback in past downturns and serves as guidance for all ALPA pilots depending on their situation. In most cases, these resources are available in both English and French.

In addition to these checklists, www.alpa.org/furlough features links to career opportunities, hardship assistance, and other support programs available in the United States and Canada.

Insuring Your Future

Loss of benefits can be a serious concern for ALPA members facing any kind of potential job displacement. The Association posts information about unemployment insurance benefits, including health-care assistance, financial aid, and loans. For U.S.-based pilots with families, details are also available about the Children’s Health Insurance Program, which provides low-cost health coverage for children of families whose collective earnings are too high to qualify for Medicaid.

Having the proper insurance coverage ensures that the people you care most about are reasonably protected from financial hardship when the unexpected occurs. The Association offers programs to supplement or, if necessary, replace your company coverage. ALPA makes available monthly and lump-sum loss-of-license insurance, group term life insurance, 10- and 20-year-level term life insurance, as well as accidental death and dismemberment and short-term disability plans. Members can also sign up for dental and identity-theft coverage, and the union coordinates a separate set of Canadian insurance programs. These programs are subject to eligibility and enrollment requirements.

ALPA’s Member Insurance Department advises that if members are covered under the union’s Critical Illness plan and become infected with COVID-19, they may be eligible for a benefit. For more information, contact Insurance@alpa.org or send a question through the DART (Data Action Report) system at dart.alpa.org or use the ALPA app.

Knowledge Is Power

Understanding your options and how to take full advantage of them is essential in mitigating the damages of any economic downturn so the Association has partnered with Cage Marshall Consulting to offer the webinar series “Supporting ALPA Pilots.”

One of the webinar’s presentations, “Perspective and Planning,” deals with industry history, looking for pilot job vacancies, and the realities of a nonflying job search. Another installment examines skills assessment and job searches, explaining how a pilot background can translate to other career opportunities. Webinar attendees can learn about résumé and cover-letter development as well as nonflying interview preparation. Other presentations cover stress management and basic finances and benefits.

Cage Marshall is offering both on-demand and live-scheduled webinars, and all sessions are free for ALPA members. In the first two months after the series launched, the webinars were watched more than 800 times by members from 21 different ALPA pilot groups.

To learn more about these online conferences, their availability, and how you can register, visit www.alpa.org/furlough.

The Association has also partnered with Thomas Edison State University and California Coast University to offer online courses to ALPA pilots. Both schools offer reduced rates, and ALPA members can earn credits toward an undergraduate degree with FAA and Canadian ATP licensing certifications.

A Sympathetic Ear

“Most importantly, FPSP links members to valuable resources about health and well-being, including what you need to know about flying during the pandemic,” said Everett. “In addition, we can put members in touch with the Air Safety Organization Pilot Assistance Group’s Pilot Peer Support program. Pilot volunteers are available 24/7 to listen and offer confidential, nonjudgmental support to members in both the United States and Canada.” For more information, visit www.alpa.org/pps or call 309-PPS-ALPA (309-777-2572). If your ALPA group already has an independent support line (e.g., Delta PAN, FedEx Express PATH, JetBlue PAN, and United SOAR), those groups continue to operate under ALPA PPS and can be reached directly:

  • Delta PAN: 800-USA-ALPA
  • FedEx PATH: 866-FDX-ALPA
  • JetBlue PAN: 309-PPS-ALPA
  • United SOAR: 866-653-SOAR
  • Canadian Pilot Assistance: Now available through the PPS hotline. Call the number above for 24/7 support.

Other Pilot Assistance programs can help with professional standards concerns, alcohol and substance abuse and dependency, aeromedical issues, and support for members involved in accidents or critical incidents. The Membership Committee has also established the Family Issues Group (www.alpa.org/familyissues) as a resource for pilots dealing with a host of family-related matters such as elder care, divorce, childcare needs, and choosing a licensed counselor or therapist.

Airline Group Efforts

FPSP resources are a foundation for all ALPA members, but the resources and support materials can be customized for all properties. Some pilot groups have developed their own programs to address the specific needs of their members.

F/O Maggie Eickhoff (Delta) who leads her pilot group’s Membership Committee, commented, “At Delta, we’re working to build multiple programs to support our pilots and their families during this time, like the Furlough Mentor Program. We’re asking Delta pilots who’ve been previously furloughed to mentor pilots facing furlough for the first time by providing support, compassion, and a place to vent, if necessary.”

She acknowledged, “This is the third industrial downturn in my 19 years of flying, 15 years as an ALPA pilot. I’m 100 percent certain it won’t be my last, but we’ll get through this together.”

F/O Adam Harmer (WestJet), who coordinates his pilot group’s Wingman program, observed, “We created Wingman to support our members who’ve been furloughed. With the uncertainty and anxiety that’s come from this pandemic, we wanted to ensure that our furloughed pilots don’t feel as if they’ve been forgotten. After we sent out the initial e-mail looking for volunteers, I was moved by the overwhelming support we had in pilots stepping up to help their furloughed colleagues.”

The FPSP offers personalized support to individual MEC/local executive councils to help develop such programs like WestJet’s Wingman.

Keeping in Touch

“As we confront these challenging times, we want ALPA members to know that we’re here to support them in every way possible,” said Everett. “The key to getting through difficult experiences like the current pandemic is by staying in contact and working together to support one another. That’s really what being part of a union is all about, and that’s exactly how we’ll survive and get past this current crisis.” To highlight available services and support, the Association is in the process of mailing a postcard to ALPA members underscoring the vast network of in-house programs and arrangements with benefits specialists and additional service providers.

Industry Outlook

Part of being prepared includes brushing up on your understanding of how the pandemic is affecting the economy and the aviation industry. While COVID-19 severely impacted the North American economy, new trends show some signs of improvement. May and June witnessed an uptick of 7.5 million U.S. jobs, after losing 22.2 million jobs in March and April. Airline passenger volume and revenue had also begun to improve.

Following a sharp employment decrease in February through April, Canada recovered more than 290,000 jobs in May and close to a million more in June. However, the nation is still facing a significant job deficit as compared to prepandemic levels.

The global passenger airline industry is projected to lose more than $84 billion this year alone after nearly a decade of growth. Financial forecaster Goldman Sachs anticipates the return to pre-COVID-19 demand for air travel to take longer than previously estimated, predicting market shortfalls through 2022. Conversely, the air cargo market has been the anomaly, witnessing near-record revenues, forecasting as much as $110.8 billion for 2020.

Stay Informed

Check out the Flight Path, the monthly Furloughed Pilots Support Program e-mail newsletter that contains information to keep you in the loop. Current and recent copies are available at www.alpa.org/furlough. Have questions, suggestions, or feedback? Contact the Furloughed Pilots Support Program at FurloughInfo@alpa.org.

This article was originally published in the August 2020 issue of Air Line Pilot.

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