Five Questions for ALPA’s Retirement & Insurance Committee Chair

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By Christopher Freeze, Senior Aviation Technical Writer
Capt. Ken Binder (FedEx Express), ALPA’s Retirement & Insurance Committee chair, helps lead the Association’s efforts to negotiate industry-leading benefits, including retirement and insurance plans

Editor’s note: This column showcases the efforts of a cross section of ALPA pilots who volunteer their time and talents to advocate for the union’s priorities and the cadre of knowledgeable and passionate staff specialists who support them.

COVID-19 has brought about unprecedented challenges for the airline industry and its employees, including the possibility of pilot furloughs. While the Association is taking measures to protect member jobs through contract negotiating and lobbying efforts on Capitol and Parliament Hills, now more than ever it’s vital that ALPA members review and are familiar with their retirement and insurance benefits in order to navigate the current industry downturn.

Air Line Pilot sat down with Capt. Ken Binder (FedEx Express), ALPA’s Retirement & Insurance (R&I) Committee chair, to learn more about the pilot who assists in leading the Association’s efforts to negotiate industry-leading benefits, including the retirement and insurance plans that play an important role in the financial well-being of ALPA members and their families.

Air Line Pilot: 1. How did you get into aviation/flying?

Capt. Ken Binder: I never knew life without airplanes. My father was a pilot for FedEx Express so aviation was always close at hand. And I had a passion for flying from the start.

I took my first flight lesson at 14 years old but didn’t get serious until after I enlisted in the U.S. Marine Corps Reserve. Not only did my exposure to aviation broaden, but I quickly learned that the men and women in the front of airplanes had a better job than I did jumping out of the back!

I began learning to fly in earnest while attending Arizona State University. There, I earned my ratings, worked as an instructor, and was eventually able to scratch together enough flight time to qualify for the next step in my journey—to be hired by Continental Express, which later became ExpressJet. I started in the Beech 1900D and became a line check airman in the Embraer 145.

In 2006, I was hired by FedEx Express, fulfilling a lifelong dream. I started as a flight engineer on the B-727 and have since flown in the right seat of the B-757 and MD-11. Today, I captain the same MD-11 as my father once did—and you’ll rarely find me without a big grin on my face when I’m in that seat.

2. How did you first become involved with ALPA work?

Binder: I first became involved with ALPA as a youngster because my dad was active in ALPA from its beginnings at FedEx—and volunteer work requires the entire family’s support.

My first job with ALPA was a Pilot-to-Pilot representative at ExpressJet while I was still new to unionism and the Association. I learned firsthand many of the things my father had spoken of, and we had many conversations about ALPA’s history and its importance in our industry.

In 2001, my father fell ill. And while it was very serious, he immediately started to respond to treatment. We thought we had beat it, but in 2002 he took an unexpected turn for the worse and was given two weeks to live. I found myself with my parents in a hospital room with a FedEx pilot benefits book in my lap. My job was to make sense of the myriad of benefits and to ensure that my mom was protected, given the situation and timeline.

That’s when the R&I bug truly bit me. I saw firsthand the importance of the benefits ALPA negotiates for our pilots and their families, how complicated they can be, and how easily they can be misunderstood or even overlooked. Sadly, my father did succumb quickly, and while the benefits provided to my mother were valuable, we encountered some pitfalls and rough spots along the way.

So once at FedEx Express, I had a mission: working on the R&I Committee. I went to every meeting I could and let the R&I chair know that as soon as I was off probation I wanted to be a member of his committee. Just days after my probation ended, he offered me a job on an R&I subcommittee. I worked my way through different positions, including committee chair, and eventually became a member of ALPA’s national R&I Committee.

My proudest moment, shortly after the ratification of the 2015 FedEx contract, was calling my mom and letting her know that due to the work of the FedEx Negotiating Committee, no FedEx family would ever have to encounter the pitfalls we did.

3. What are your roles and responsibilities as ALPA’s R&I chair?

Binder: I see my main role as the facilitator of a committee of brilliant subject-matter specialist pilot volunteers. Together, we work with ALPA’s world-class staff of benefit professionals that includes attorneys, an enrolled actuary, a chartered financial analyst, benefit specialists, and more.

The scope of our responsibilities is vast and includes working on ALPA policy regarding benefit programs both negotiated and those sponsored by ALPA, coordinating those benefits, and investigating new or improved ways to provide them. We coordinate with ALPA’s Government Affairs Department to recommend ALPA policy and advocate for positive benefits-related legislation and work to counter any impending threats. We take on assignments from ALPA’s president or Executive Council. And we educate the Association’s master executive council R&I Committees, the membership, and ourselves on benefits. To do this, we hold a biennial R&I seminar and invite pilots to come to ALPA’s offices to learn from the best and brightest in industry, government, academia, and, most importantly, from each other.

In addition, I have two ancillary responsibilities as the R&I Committee chair. 1) I’m a voting member of ALPA’s Pilot Welfare Benefit Plan VEBA Board, the fiduciary body chaired by ALPA’s vice president–finance/treasurer that oversees the finances of ALPA’s member insurance plans and 2) I’m a director of Kitty Hawk Insurance and help with investments and guidance in order to protect the Association from liability.

4. How do you see ALPA national and staff helping you achieve your goals?

Binder: Lee Iacocca once said, “I hire people brighter than me and get out of their way.” While the pilots aren’t directly responsible for hiring our team of talented, experienced, and dedicated staff, we interact much in the same way Iacocca described. We set direction, and the staff regularly exceeds our expectations.

An example of this is the amazingly detailed work the staff has done to support pilots affected by the current COVID-19 pandemic. We wanted to provide pilots with information and resources they could use to protect themselves and their families financially during this turbulent time. If you look at the resources provided on ALPA’s website, you’ll see the fruits of their labor.

While the pilots who compose the R&I Committee come and go, staff members are the enduring backbone of institutional knowledge and make up the best benefits team in organized labor.

5. What advice would you give to new pilots who want to get involved with ALPA?

Binder: First, just start. Start today. Don’t put it off for another day.

Second, you don’t need to decide what to do right away. Get to know your local officers, go to meetings, see what piques your interest.

Third, you don’t need to be an expert. While experts can be very valuable, they can also be developed. Volunteers who are willing to learn and to do the work are the most crucial prerequisite. ALPA has terrific training programs, dedicated staff, and welcoming pilot volunteers who are happy to mentor new volunteers.

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

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