The Military’s Enduring Connection to the Airline Industry

By Capt. Richard Corbett (JetBlue), Chair, Veterans Affairs Subcommittee

Since its early operation as an airmail carrier, the North American airline industry and the pilots who fly for it have been inextricably linked to the armed forces. George Hopkins, in Flying the Line, his historic account of the Air Line Pilots Association, noted that in the pioneering days of aviation, “most airline pilots were military-trained, many still holding reserve commissions….” Even Capt. Dave Behncke, ALPA’s first president, served as an Army pilot during World War I.

In 1932, the year after ALPA was founded, Behncke persuaded the Association to support his “Legion of the Air” initiative to grant airline pilots pseudomilitary status. ALPA petitioned the Democratic Party at its national convention to adopt the measure as part of its platform, in Hopkins’s words, to “give all active airline pilots reserve commissions or, failing that, to support a new organization of airline pilots that would be available for call-up in time of national emergency.” ALPA’s first president envisioned airline pilots as the “minutemen of air defense,” but the measure never gained the traction it needed to pass legislative muster.

The lion’s share of airline culture has been lifted from the military, including the use of the 24-hour clock, uniforms, ranks for pilots, and the foundation for pilot-in-command authority. And through progressive discipline, both the airline industry and the armed forces solicit improved behavior from employees and service members who need assistance in meeting job standards.

For much of its history, the airlines’ primary source of pilot candidates has been the armed services. The technical skills combined with the confidence and self-discipline instilled from military training continue to provide an excellent background for airline pilot candidates. While more and more cockpit crewmembers graduate from collegiate aviation and other certification programs, the military services still supply their fair share of applicants for pilot jobs.

Another ongoing U.S. program connecting our airlines to the armed forces is the Civil Reserve Air Fleet. This program calls on our carriers to provide the nation’s air mobility resources when the U.S. Department of Defense airlift needs exceed the capability of the current military aircraft fleet.

The simple fact is the military operates troop transports and hauls equipment and other resources much in the same way airlines carry passengers and cargo, and many current ALPA members, including some of our elected national officers, have an armed forces background.

As chair of ALPA’s Veterans Affairs Subcommittee within the Membership Committee of the Professional Development Group, I understand that members of both the U.S. and Canadian military may need help transitioning to the airline cockpit. My group also assists the thousands of ALPA pilots who continue to serve in the reserves. From experience, we know that airlines don’t always understand what military commitments entail and how these obligations are protected by federal laws.

In the United States, the Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act ensures that a pilot’s military commitment doesn’t imperil their civilian work. To the north, specific sections in the Canada Labour Code address protections for airline employees who are military members. However, the terms and intent of both sets of rules aren’t always clear, and Veterans Affairs works closely with ALPA’s Legal Department to clarify the latest interpretations and policy changes.

In addition to the time spent away from home flying airline trips, these service members are called up to serve at locations around the world and place themselves at risk in defense of our two nations. They deserve our gratitude, but, more importantly, they need our help. That’s why ALPA established Veterans Affairs and why so many pilot groups have their own Military Affairs Committees.

On Veterans Day and Remembrance Day—and all other days—Americans and Canadians, past and present, who play an integral part in our aviation industry and who’ve also selflessly served as members of our respective armed forces deserve our thanks. So much of what we have we owe to their collective sacrifice.

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

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