An Interview with ALPA’s National Officers
By Air Line Pilot Staff
Air Line Pilot staff recently sat down with the Association’s new slate of national officers, Capts. Joe DePete, president; Bob Fox, first vice president; Bill Couette, vice president–administration/secretary; and Joseph Genovese, vice president–finance/treasurer, to ask them several questions ranging from their views on the future of ALPA and the challenges facing the Association and its members to how they got into flying and the most recent book they’ve read. Here’s what they had to say.
1. What’s your vision for ALPA and the industry when your current term ends in four years?
DePete: When I ran for ALPA president, I did so on a platform of making the Association more accountable to and more reflective of its membership. ALPA must be a pilot-driven organization, and the products and services we provide and the positions we take must mirror the will and interests of our members. To that end, one of my top goals during the next four years is to ensure that we have greater pilot engagement and participation at every level within the union. We’re carefully looking at everything we do to see how we can best align with these priorities.
Fox: In addition to addressing the goals outlined in ALPA’s strategic plan, I want to help our members better connect with the Association. As part of this effort, I’m in the process of implementing a unionwide communications tool called the Data Action Report System that will serve as a resource for pilots with questions as well as an added support network for smaller to mid-size pilot groups that need help with their committee structures. In 2014, we rolled out a comparable program for the United pilots, and it’s been tremendously successful. In addition to answering contract, operational, and policy questions, we’ll archive the data we receive so that we can monitor the information and act on trends. We’ll have more details about the program in the near future.
Couette: I want to make sure our union is properly positioned to handle whatever challenges the future may bring, that the structures within ALPA effectively serve the needs of our members, and that financially we’re on solid ground. I’m particularly interested in growing and expanding the reach of ALPA’s Professional Development Group to ensure that young people have easy access to information and resources for pursuing airline piloting jobs and that we assist current members interested in career growth. Information must be easily accessible, and our programs must be both effective and beneficial.
Genovese: This industry is cyclical, and ALPA has to be positioned to move with those cycles. At the end of my four years, I’d hope that ALPA has a strong financial footing, our membership has grown and will continue to grow to historic levels, and we’ve made structural changes that make the Association nimble.
2. What, in your opinion, are the greatest challenges ALPA and its members face in the near future?
DePete: Despite the growth and success of the North American aviation industry, our companies and our jobs are under constant threat from forces that would ease entry restrictions to U.S. and Canadian markets and expunge airline pilot qualification and hiring rules and training practices. The North American airline market is the envy of the world, and we must make every effort to defend it. I’ve asked Capt. Bob Fox to take the lead on international issues for our Association and the potential threats these kinds of outside efforts pose.
Fox: We continue to see attempts to erode fair airline competition standards and the rights and privileges we enjoy as professional airline pilots. Specifically, we need to do a better job of enforcing our Open Skies agreements with countries like the United Arab Emirates and Qatar—two nations that subsidize their airline industries, crippling the ability of other nations’ carriers to fairly compete in the same markets. We need to bar domestic airport access to airlines like Norwegian Air International that operate using a flag-of-convenience business model. We’re also concerned about transnational airlines like Ryanair that apply atypical employment schemes. Although these efforts are occurring overseas, as Capt. DePete notes, they potentially threaten North American airlines and jobs.
Couette: Although the airline industry has changed in many ways over the years, we know that it experiences cycles based on the economy and airline capacity and demand. Unanticipated events like aircraft accidents, terrorist attacks, and weather catastrophes make it even more difficult to anticipate future shifts. As a union, we must always be ready for whatever appears on our horizon. This preparation includes insulating ourselves against both domestic and foreign challenges to the profession. We know about recent efforts to promote flag-of-convenience business models and attempts by other countries to sidestep Open Skies agreements. We need to be able to anticipate and protect ourselves against the next round of threats, whatever they may be.
Genovese: I believe that economic uncertainty and the challenge to labor laws are the greatest issues facing ALPA and its members in the near future.
3. Regarding your past roles in ALPA—at either the local council, master executive council, or national level—what single achievement are you proudest of?
DePete: My proudest achievement came during my recent term as ALPA’s first vice president, when I worked with pilot volunteers and staff to reorganize the Association’s air safety structure. The new Air Safety Organization, as we renamed it, oversees the union’s Aviation Safety, Aviation Security, Pilot Assistance, and Jumpseat efforts, maximizing the operational synergies among these disciplines. We’re making certain they’re properly empowered and receive the attention and resources they need. I’m also very proud of the new Pilot Peer Support program we implemented at the beginning of the year in conjunction with this effort.
Fox: I mentioned the Data Action Report System that we prototyped at United Airlines several years ago. With the program in full operation, the United Master Executive Council (MEC) began receiving roughly 20,000 reports a year, providing a clear indication of the system’s success and popularity. The system wouldn’t have been a success without the dedication of the pilot volunteers and ALPA staff members who respond to the pilots’ issues with amazing speed. I also want to give credit to ALPA’s IT Department staff members who took my ideas and developed the programming that allows the Association to collect and store the data. This allows us to see trends and hold management accountable to the agreements they reach with pilots, and the United MEC has been able to use this data to settle numerous grievances. As an example, the recent United pilot payroll grievance settlement was valued at more than $25 million.
Couette: If I could point to one thing we’ve achieved during my time in office, it’s growth. In the last 10 years, 13 new pilot groups have joined our union, and membership has increased by nearly 8,000 pilots. Through the Association’s Education Committee, we’ve established 11 collegiate outreach programs during the last decade, offering mentoring and professional development services to students interested in becoming airline pilots. All of this advances our ability to negotiate contracts, positively influence lawmakers and regulators, work with aircraft manufacturers on cockpit designs, and serve as the voice of the airline piloting profession.
Genovese: It’s easy to do a good job during the good times. I’m most proud that during the post-9/11 times I was able to work through declining membership and dues revenue to not only continue to provide the services our pilots needed but to also position my master executive council to thrive once conditions improved. Many of these policies and practices continue to be implemented today.
4. When you’re not flying or conducting ALPA business, where would we find you and what would you be doing?
DePete: I’m a self-proclaimed foodie. I love to try new restaurants and different styles of cooking with family and friends. In fact, if I hadn’t chosen flying as a career, I’d have loved to pursue a job like that of the late Anthony Bourdain, acting as a combination chef, author, and travel documentarian. If you’ve ever watched one of his television shows, they elegantly combine elements of politics, culture, and the simple love of food and wine to communicate the power of one of the most basic human connections: sitting down and breaking bread together.
Fox: I live in Florida, and on the occasion that I can negotiate some downtime, I love to fish, play golf, and go to the beach. If I’m not there, I’m likely in California visiting my grandchildren.
Couette: I’ve always enjoyed spending time outdoors. I love to hunt, and I want anyone concerned about this activity to know that I hunt for food and not for sport. Nothing goes to waste. I’ve also been an avid Harley-Davidson rider for 40 years.
Genovese: Although my free time is limited, I try to spend time with my family and take care of my house. When I really have extra time, I like to ride my bike and work on a classic car restoration project I’ve started.
5. How did you get into flying?
DePete: I love flying and, like so many of my peers, devoted a great deal of my early years to building hours and securing ratings. However, my aviation career took off when I enlisted in the U.S. Marine Corps. The armed services exposed me to air cargo operations where I flew KC-130s out of Air Station Cherry Point in Havelock, N.C., for many years. These extended-range tankers gave me a great foundation for being hired at FedEx Express. I’ve flown several aircraft types since then, most recently the A310/300.
Fox: I attended the U.S. Naval Academy and had to decide whether I’d operate submarines, drive ships, fly aircraft, or be a Marine. That decision was easy after seeing the Blue Angels conduct a performance while flying the A-4 Skyhawk—which, by the way, is the best Blue Angel aircraft ever!
Couette: When I was growing up, friends of my family owned a fixed-based operation at my hometown airport. I was fascinated with aviation and began flying. In time, I acquired my ratings and went off to college to earn a bachelor’s degree in aviation technology.
Genovese: Like many pilots, an older adult was a big influence in my love for flying. In my case, it was my dad. He was a private pilot and worked as an engineer for an aerospace company so planes were around me all the time.
6. Tell us about one of your most memorable flights.
DePete: My most memorable flight had to be my first trip after the 9/11 terrorist attacks. The entire U.S. and Canadian airspace systems were closed. Operations resumed on a restricted basis two days later, but it took weeks for airline operations to return to any semblance of normalcy. On my first flight after the attacks, I denied an aviation safety inspector cockpit access because I wasn’t able to verify his status. I was fully aware of the potential repercussions, but as the pilot-in-command I felt I had to do what I believed was right. I received some initial correspondence about this incident but never heard anything more about it.
Fox: Flying the number of hours I have, I’ve enjoyed some great trips with some great people. I’ve also dealt with my share of operational irregularities. However, reflecting back over my career, I recall one particular trip right after I checked out as an Airbus captain. While on reserve, I was assigned a pairing that included a 24-hour layover in Jamaica. My first officer was great. He was extremely professional and helped me throughout the trip get comfortable with the Airbus, after flying Boeing airplanes my whole career. After landing in Jamaica, we were out of the cold north and able to watch the AFC Championship game at a great layover hotel. Watching my Pats win in Jamaica, flying with an outstanding aviator, and being in command of an Airbus—that’s hard to beat.
Couette: I like general aviation flying and really enjoy floatplanes. In fact, I’m a former floatplane instructor. I don’t remember one specific trip but have many fond memories flying up to remote lakes in Canada while giving instruction. There’s nothing like it.
Genovese: Nothing really stands out. Many flights are memorable for small reasons.
7. Who inspires you as an aviator?
DePete: Aviation has come a long way since it beginnings more than a century ago, and we have so many individuals to thank for the marvel that is today’s air transportation system. If I had to narrow down a list, I’d have to give highest accolades and praise to the 24 “Key Men” who founded ALPA. These individuals had so much to lose, but still they persevered. Many of them died in aircraft accidents, further highlighting the need for the work we do. Fortunately for us, those who survived remained focused and committed, and today we have an airline piloting profession that affords us rights and protections.
Fox: I often think about classmates of mine at the Naval Academy who died either in combat or in training missions. These people were friends, which makes their loss that much tougher. However, their passing reminds me just how important it is to be on top of your game and to remain vigilant. Flying is different from any other mode of transportation; it requires a combination of knowledge, skills, and decision-making coupled with constant training and monitoring. The memory of those lost friends will forever serve as a remembrance that flying is something I must always prepare for and must never take for granted.
Couette: When I was building time in a Piper Lance, I worked at an air show in Fergus Falls, Minn., giving rides. The show’s headliner was Bob Hoover, who flew his Shrike Commander 500S, which is displayed at the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center at Washington’s Dulles International Airport. Hoover did it all; he was a fighter pilot, a test pilot, a flight instructor, and an extraordinary air show performer. One night during the air show, a band was playing in a hangar and Bob was standing in the doorway. I introduced myself, and we had a drink together. Bob, who passed away in 2016, is known throughout aviation as a flying legend. But that night, it was just one pilot talking to another. He had so many great stories to tell.
Genovese: Although it may sound hokey, I’m in awe of flight—the freedom it provides and the sense of accomplishment I get. Each time I fly, I’m inspired to be my best out of respect for it.
8. What advice would you pass on to a new line pilot that you wish you’d known earlier in your career?
DePete: As simple as this sounds, I would encourage new line pilots to ask questions. Always be respectful and consider the appropriateness and forum when making queries, but don’t hesitate to find out how to accomplish a particular task or ask why the Association conducts its business the way it does. You may just prompt us to revisit one of our practices or help us see a particular issue in a new light. Your simple question could lead to a future ALPA policy directive.
Fox: I’d pass on the value of being a union member and all that entails, including the pay, health care, retirement, time off, and work rules it affords. Those benefits weren’t just given to us, and we wouldn’t have the same protections and compensation today if we didn’t have representation. I’d also mention that getting involved in the union is a great way to learn more about airline flying and all the components that make up our aviation system. Find a discipline you’re particularly interested in and run with it. There are all kinds of ways to participate.
Couette: Fly for an ALPA-represented pilot group and get involved with the union. It makes you a better pilot and helps you network with your peers. And while you’re volunteering, try to leave the organization in better shape than you found it. If you’re flying for a smaller carrier and have aspirations to advance your career, keep in mind that a downturn in the industry could keep you from that. Whether you fly for a major or an express airline or transport passengers or cargo, we’re all professional airline pilots. Maintaining this perspective will serve you well.
Genovese: Be patient. Today in our industry, we find ourselves in a rapid-growth cycle, which leads to fast upgrades and a false sense of seniority. Seek quality of life versus the next biggest airplane or position. Enjoy your family, hobbies, or just the time off that this job can provide.
9. Any particular aviation “bucket list” experiences you’d like to achieve?
DePete: With 40 combined years of airline and military flying and all the time I’ve committed to this union, I feel very privileged to have had such a rich aviation career. Having said that, my bucket list includes two goals I have yet to achieve. First, I’d like to fly a small, basic general aviation aircraft across the country using no navigational assistance other than what was available in the old days, i.e., flying “IFR” (I follow roads) with just a wet compass and a chart. Second, I’ve worked extensively to ensure that ALPA continues to be a facilitator in the collaboration between commercial aviation and commercial space activities. I’d really like to take a space flight.
Fox: With my background and everything I’ve achieved, I feel very fortunate to have come this far. I had the chance to fly light-attack aircraft in addition to doing flight test work after graduating from the Naval Test Pilot School. I transitioned to airline flying with a great company and have thoroughly enjoyed the work I do. For these reasons—from an aviation bucket list standpoint—there’s nothing more I feel I need to accomplish.
Couette: After 30 years as an ALPA pilot, a five-time local council officer, and a four-term national officer, I’d say I’ve checked off everything on my aviation bucket list. I’ve flown and worked with some great people over the years and have had a great time doing it.
Genovese: I’d like to finish my career without having to go to the chief pilot’s office or to be on CNN.
10. What was the most recent book you read? Any lessons worth sharing from it?
DePete: I read a lot, but the most recent book I enjoyed was State of the Unions: How Labor Can Strengthen the Middle Class, Improve Our Economy, and Regain Political Influence by Philip M. Dine. It outlines the importance and evolution of organized labor, highlighting the dignity and meaning of work. Dine categorizes unions as defenders of middle-class values and promoters of economic well-being, positions I strongly agree with. I also recently reread the aviation classic Fate Is the Hunter by Ernest K. Gann.
Fox: When I was elected to this post, I decided to go back and reread George Hopkins’s Flying the Line, Volume I. I recently presented a briefing on the history of ALPA at the Association’s Leadership Training Conference, which prepares newly elected local council reps for their duties and responsibilities. It’s important that all ALPA pilot leaders understand how we’ve reached this moment in aviation history and what it’s taken to get us here so that we can make our mark in the next chapter.
Couette: I’ve read several books recently, but one stands out that I’d recommend to our members. I encourage all ALPA pilots to read the Flying the Line series. You can read it online, and Episode 1 of the podcast is now available on Apple Podcasts, Google Play, Spotify, and other podcast services. It’s important for all of us to understand why our union was created and all that our previous brothers and sisters sacrificed and accomplished to help us get to where we are today.
Genovese: Undaunted Courage by Stephen E. Ambrose, which recounts Lewis and Clark’s exploration of the Louisiana Purchase. I’m glad that I can fly cross-country instead of hiking like these pioneers did.