Rolling Out ALPA’s DART System

By Kevin Cuddihy, Contributing Writer

When a pilot has a question about a work issue, he might ask his fellow pilots in the crew room. Another pilot might ask her first officer. And others might go onto social media or various forums to try to find an answer. In the midst of the current COVID-19 crisis and uncertainty, this is especially true.

As a way for pilots to easily engage with their pilot group and with the Association when they have a question, ALPA recently began rolling out the Data Action ReporT (DART) program to its master executive councils (MECs) that don’t already have a robust reporting system. The DART program takes away the guesswork and time spent on finding the right person to address a specific inquiry. ALPA members can rest assured that not only is their question going to the proper people, but the answer they get will be one they can trust.

Implementing DART has been a priority of Capt. Bob Fox (United), ALPA’s first vice president, since he came into office in January 2019. “It became apparent to me that not all of our properties have the amount of resources some of our larger properties have to serve our members,” explained Fox. “By bringing DART to all of our members, each pilot will get the same level of service from our union no matter what property they’re on. In addition, the DART system collects real-time data that can be used to effect positive change.”

This timely resource has proven to be quite useful as the Association quickly adapted and customized this new tool to assist all pilots during the COVID-19 pandemic. This is especially important for those pilot groups that do not have reporting systems on their properties (see “Expanding Usage.")

How DART works

How DART works is fairly simple. A pilot with a question accesses the system—either through the app or at dart.alpa.org—and fills out a form with the question and background information (e.g., when the incident occurred, if it was in-flight, contact information, etc.).

Pilots whose MECs are fully participating in the DART system will see a few dozen categories to select from. If your pilot group hasn’t yet decided to take advantage of DART, you’ll see five categories related to the current coronavirus crisis: COVID-19 Furlough, COVID-19 Health, COVID-19 Jumpseat, COVID-19 Security, and COVID-19 Training. This allows all ALPA pilots easy access to the union’s subject-matter experts (SMEs) at a time of great need.

Once a pilot submits a question, an e-mail is automatically sent to the SMEs for that topic—within the MEC if your pilot group is using DART or to an ALPA national SME if not and you’re asking about a COVID-19 topic. The important thing to know is that your question will get to the right person, even if you don’t know who the right person is. “DART eliminates the question of ‘Who should I call?’” explained Capt. Joe DePete, ALPA’s president, and creates one access point to reach the right expert every time with one click. “Regardless of how you’re affected, ALPA’s resources and expertise are accessible whenever and wherever you need them and so are the pilot volunteers and staff who can help you match them to your individual circumstances.”

From there, SMEs may reach out to the pilot if they need more information; discuss the question with other experts, providing an additional training component for ALPA’s SMEs; and then respond with an answer. The more detailed the question, the longer it may take to receive a response, but the DART system’s goal is to respond to the pilot within 48 hours. And when you get that response back, you know that you’re getting the right answer from the right person.

How DART continues to work

While getting the right answer from the right person is important, the DART system also provides further assistance to MECs and their pilots as it’s used. Simply put, the more a pilot group uses DART, the more it serves the pilot group’s needs beyond just individual questions.

That’s because the DART system stores the questions and answers in a database, giving SMEs and MEC leaders a treasure trove of information as more and more questions are answered. Consider the following ways DART can help save time for SMEs (usually MEC leaders and committee chairs):

  1. When a question comes in that a SME thinks she has seen before, she can search the database of previous DARTs and access the previously researched answer, saving time.
  2. When a SME notices that the same question is being asked repeatedly via the DART system, he can create an entry into a Frequently Asked Question field. Pilots filling out a DART would read the FAQs, and if their question is answered, they’d indicate that with a simple click of a button. Pilots don’t have to wait for an answer, and the SME doesn’t have to take the time to provide one because it’s already there!
  3. Similarly, if a SME finds that she’s having to go back to pilots with the same follow-up question repeatedly within a certain category, then that question can be added to the DART form for just that category and reduce the burden on the SME.

As the DART system evolves, easily accessible answers will reduce the time it takes MEC leaders and SMEs to answer incoming questions. And the more time they can save, the more time they have to dedicate to other MEC work.

A bigger picture

Time saved isn’t the only benefit a robust and well-used DART system offers ALPA’s pilot groups. Thanks to the functionality of the database, MEC leaders can look back through DARTs collectively to identify specific areas in which more action might be needed. For MECs, it turns the anecdotal “we’re getting a lot of reports from our pilots” into a data-driven conversation with substantial reports to back up their positions. Consider the following hypothetical and sample scenarios:

  1. Over the course of two months, 15 DARTs come in regarding poor experiences at one of the contracted hotels for pilots. MEC leaders can task the Hotel Committee with inspecting the hotel or researching replacement hotels in the vicinity.
  2. Multiple DARTs come in over a six-month period regarding the company underpaying pilots on a particular trip; each time the SMEs determine that the pilot is owed the additional money. Not only can the MEC reach out to the company’s payroll department regarding this discrepancy going forward, but—as was the case at United Airlines—the Pilot Compensation Committee can use its pilot reporting system to investigate other pilots who flew this same trip to ensure that they’re paid correctly as well. It helped put “millions of dollars back into the pilots’ wallets,” according to Fox.
  3. In reviewing incoming DARTs over the course of a year, an MEC notices multiple areas in which there is a divergence between the pilot group and management regarding specific sections of the contract. With this knowledge, the pilot group has a ready-made list of priorities for a letter of agreement or to kick off formal contract negotiations—with the data to back up its assertions.

“Using the DART system will provide valuable information to both the pilot and the Association,” explained Fox. “It’s the exchange of information, the answers for pilots and the collection of data for ALPA, that will enable our union to make organizational-level decisions and base strategy and efforts on the areas that matter most to our pilots. It will also enable our efforts in all areas to be more impactful—because data will be available to support a position or effort.”

Expanding usage

As ALPA began a recent DART training session for MECs, the COVID-19 virus hit the world and the airline industry, leaving many ALPA pilots with questions and no place to go for answers.

Maneuvering quickly, ALPA’s leaders decided to adapt the DART system to address those questions and created the five previously mentioned categories of potential questions related to the COVID-19 crisis. Rather than burden the MECs with more work, especially at a time when many were already busy addressing the crisis in other areas, ALPA used national volunteers from the Pilot Assistance, Aviation Safety, Aviation Security, and Jumpseat pillars of the Air Safety Organization and other related committees, such as the Membership Committee, as SMEs for COVID-19 questions.

“While still encouraging those members at FedEx Express, JetBlue, United, and others with a local reporting system to use that method,” said F/O Paul Ryder (United), ALPA’s national resource coordinator, who’s been tasked with rolling out the program, “we made sure that all ALPA members had access to critical information related to the COVID-19 pandemic. While challenging, the commitment of our staff, the expertise of our pilot volunteers, and the support of our national officers have made the launch possible.”

The impact was immediate, with DARTs flowing in following the program’s announcement in an April 8 message from DePete and continuing as ALPA promotes the system. Consider the following question submitted by a pilot: “My company has started a marketing campaign regarding their steps to make the airline safer regarding COVID-19. They have a video on their website where they use fogging technology. I would like to know what the name of the chemicals are that we will be exposed to, including the MSDS [material safety data sheets] if possible. I would like to know what the side effects of these chemicals are regarding prolonged exposure. The company also claims that the Airbus 320 series aircraft completely cleans the cabin air every three minutes, and I was wondering if the union has any information or proof to verify those claims?”

Thanks to the DART system, this pilot received a detailed, specific answer within 48 hours that included the chemical information he requested, assuring him that he was safe, all coordinated within the system with his MEC.

“I think the DART system has proven and will continue to be of great value to our pilots and our pilot groups,” added Ryder. “It’s going to help with their immediate needs, with pilots who have questions but don’t know where to direct them, but it’s also going to help them long term as they get more and more data and learn to use the reports and information.”

The next steps

Currently, any ALPA member can use the DART system to ask a question related to the COVID-19 crisis. For those pilots whose MECs already have a robust pilot reporting system in place, use that system first. There are a small handful of pilot groups fully vested in the DART system, and their pilots can ask questions regarding any category the MEC has included.

In the coming months, ALPA will be working with the MECs that don’t have a robust pilot reporting system to introduce them to DART and provide training to include them in the system. The more MECs that participate, the more the Association can track issues of concern to all ALPA members using DART, such as during the current COVID-19 crisis. More and more ALPA members will be able to get the answers they need—when they need them—from the right person, creating an even more responsive union that shares information, resources, and expertise across disciplines. The goal is to have most, if not all, ALPA pilot groups using some form of the DART system or a similar program.

“A year from now, we’ll have a robust system in place to better support all pilots,” said Ryder, “a continuing evolution of ALPA’s constant goal to be an effective advocate for all of our members and the airline piloting profession.”

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

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