Speaking the Same Language [IFALPA]

IFALPA’s member associations bring the pilots’ perspective to airline globalization.

Air Line Pilot, February 2001, p. 10
By Chris Dodd, Staff Writer

The two airline pilots outside the conference room were comparing notes on a tricky approach. Nothing out of the ordinary. Just a couple of aviators shooting the breeze in a Washington, D.C., hotel corridor, except for the fact that the conversation was slipping in and out of Spanish like a sports car changing lanes along the Costa Brava.

Down the hall, Capt. Scott Turner (Delta) held forth on crew resource management in another conference room, while his audience scribbled notes in half a dozen other languages. In a third room, PowerPoint, the business world’s mother tongue, was clicking briskly through a checklist on dangerous goods.

The casual observer didn’t need to be multilingual to pick out the common element: it was definitely pilotspeak. The terminology might have regional variations, some of the acronyms might be locally grown, but the pilots attending the International Federation of Air Line Pilots Associations committee meetings in the fall of 2000 found themselves, for the most part, on common ground. U.S. ALPA hosted meetings in Washington, D.C., in October for five of IFALPA’s standing committees, attended by pilot group representatives from 28 of its member countries.

The gathering served to illustrate that the struggles of flight crews to increase the margin of safety for themselves and their passengers, and to secure fair wages and working conditions, are universal. And in some countries, those struggles are just in the opening skirmishes.

The delegation from ALPA-Korea, involved in an intense struggle to achieve collective bargaining rights for pilots at Korean Air Lines, did more than talk to IFALPA’s Industrial Affairs Committee; they brought a video.

KAL pilots battled through most of 2000 with the Korean Labor Ministry and airline management to force their recognition as a bargaining unit and staged a 17-hour strike in October, before securing a first contract. The video reaffirmed that, no matter the form of expression, union solidarity is a concept that translates to all cultures.

U.S. and Canadian pilots walk a picket line in full uniform, usually in neat—and silent—formation. Korean pilots, by contrast, may wear "struggle jackets"—crimson vests stenciled with Korean symbols for struggle and solidarity—and turn out singing rousing labor songs that pledge "resistance to dictators."

First Officer Steve Chung, a KAL pilot schooled at the U.S. Air Force Academy, screened the presentation before the Industrial Committee. He reported that, 5 days after the strike, management met in secret to dismiss 9 members of the KAL Flight Crew Union and to suspend 18 other members. The union is fighting back and plans a class-action suit against KAL’s parent corporation for mismanagement.

The Washington, D.C., meeting gave the Korean pilots the chance to interact with their counterparts in the SkyTeam alliance—Delta, Air France, and Aero Mexico—and the delegates used the occasion to formalize their own group, the Skyteam Pilot Alliance.

Being part of an international organization is essential in an aviation environment that seems at times to be making up the rules as it goes along, believes ALPA’s first vice-president, Capt. Dennis Dolan, who was elected IFALPA Principal Vice-President for Professional Affairs in April 2000.

"You can’t fully understand the globalization of the airline industry by reading the newspaper or watching television," Capt. Dolan says emphatically. "You have to go out and talk to the pilot groups involved."

For the last several years, ALPA has been encouraging pilot groups to form alliances that are counterparts to the international alliances among their air carriers. IFALPA’s annual conference and the meetings of its standing committees, usually held twice a year, "provide a natural forum" for those exchanges, says Seth Rosen, director of ALPA’s Representation Department, who has served as industrial advisor to IFALPA since the late 1980s.

At IFALPA’s March 2000 conference in Tokyo, the Federation for the first time scheduled "inter-alliance" meetings among pilots in the major alliances, an exercise they will continue, says Capt. Dolan.

For the last 5 years, ALPA has helped conduct biannual negotiations seminars through IFALPA (the most recent in Singapore in November 2000). The seminars, says Rosen, have "trained hundreds of pilots to deal with management strategies and to know at least some fundamentals" of the bargaining process. These educational efforts are in keeping with ALPA’s Global Pilot Strategy, "to help protect and improve the standards" of the profession, Rosen adds.

Aside from educating members, IFALPA also helps set up mutual assistance agreements to provide more muscle for pilot groups facing strikes or other disputes with their managements.

The agreements may take the form of refusing to extend route mileage and/or carrying capacity to a striking carrier, or calling for a ban on recruitment and training (as in the case of Atlas Air’s establishment of a crew base in Stansted, England), or using other means to exert collective pressure. In certain cases, a member association on strike may invite other IFALPA-organized pilots to come in and do the work of the struck carrier. "This particular tactic," IFALPA’s president, Capt. Ted Murphy (Aer Lingus), says, "may seem strange at first, but it can be very effective at bringing management to the bargaining table. It allows the pilots to make the case that they do not wish to inconvenience the traveling public, while it causes considerable grief to the struck airline."

IFALPA received more than two dozen requests for mutual assistance in 2000, the Federation reported.

Capt. Dolan notes that pilots must ally themselves across national lines to prevent "global whipsawing." Managements, with a "bottom-line mentality, want to get the cheapest labor they can get," he says, and may "shop around" for the employee group willing to work for less.

Participation in IFALPA, he adds, affords pilots the opportunity "to be out there actively talking to other pilot groups about why allowing their managements to do certain things in their alliances and code-share arrangements may not be in everyone’s best interests."

Capt. Murphy notes that his own home Association—Irish ALPA—is involved in an industrial action based on Aer Lingus’s code-share agreement with American Airlines and British Airways as part of the oneworld alliance. The Aer Lingus pilots have been refusing to make themselves available for work on their days off, or to do any extra duties, pointing out that, while many of their flights carry AA and BA "numbers," or codes, pilots at the Irish carrier earn roughly half of what American and British Airways pilots make.

"That case really arises from the alliance arrangement," Capt. Murphy points out, adding that such developments "are going to be increasingly significant for all pilots worldwide."

Safety issues

Despite the involvement of member carriers in such job actions, however, some within IFALPA would prefer that the Federation itself remain "technically pure"—i.e., focused on safety issues.

According to IFALPA history, the idea for an international association of pilots unions grew out of a 1947 telephone conversation between Capt. Bart Cox of ALPA and Denis Follows, secretary of the British Air Line Pilots Association (BALPA). At issue was a proposal by the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) on "temperature accountability for aerodromes" (i.e., airports) and how to calculate the maximum temperature to be used in the formula for determining runway length.

ICAO, established as an agency of the United Nations to oversee safety standards for international air transport, was making these determinations without benefit of pilot input, the pilots worried. Pilots unions from 13 nations subsequently came together to make sure they would always have a voice in these matters.

Today, IFALPA is one of only two authorized observers at ICAO—the International Air Transport Association is the other. ALPA is the sole representative of U.S. and Canadian airline pilot interests before IFALPA. And safety most definitely remains front and center on the Federation’s agenda.

But entirely separating the so-called "industrial" side of IFALPA from the technical side would be difficult, if not impossible. "Safety and pilots’ working environments are always intertwined," observes ALPA’s Rosen.

Many of the same issues that are on ALPA committee agendas are on those of IFALPA’s, and many issues blur the line between the two areas: flight and duty time, adequate training, the introduction of new aircraft and new technologies.

And as global competition heats up, the pressure on safety will only increase. "Experience has shown," as IFALPA’s policy manual elegantly puts it, "that a highly competitive environment and maintenance of adequate safety margins may not rest easily together."

One of the projects that IFALPA technical personnel tackled, for example, is reduced vertical separation minima. RVSM was introduced in the North Atlantic in the spring of 1997 and in certain areas of the Pacific later and is scheduled to be partially implemented in European airspace in March, to be timed with the release of TCAS Version 7.

Capt. Robert Swain (United), IFALPA regional vice-president for the North Atlantic, said that RVSM "exceeded everyone’s expectations in terms of efficiency of operations and cost reductions," but the near-doubling of capacity resulting from decreasing vertical separation minima from 2,000 to 1,000 feet has been nearly offset by the growth in traffic.

Besides IFALPA’s six "principal officers," (president, deputy president, and principal vice-presidents for professional affairs, technical standards, membership and regional, and administration and finance), the Federation has 20 regional vice-presidents, whose role, in part, is to stay abreast of safety issues in a particular region, both in the region’s countries and in its overwater airspace. In addition, the organization has 11 standing committees, covering industrial, technical, legal, and administrative issues.

An executive director and secretariat run IFALPA’s day-to-day affairs from an office in Chertsey, England; and a permanent liaison to ICAO is based in Montreal.

Like ALPA, most of the "nuts and bolts" work of the organization is done in committee, Capt. Dolan notes.

And the importance of international dialogue is often brought home in the sometimes minuscule details of committee work. Take the proposal to reduce longitudinal separation, for example.

Following the success of RVSM, a proposal to reduce longitudinal separation naturally followed. "When I took this job four years ago," says Capt. Swain, "authorities were discussing what procedures would have to be in place to enable a reduction in longitudinal separation [in oceanic airspace] from ten minutes to seven."

The proposal included, among the "enablers," a reliance on timekeeping—that is, the measure of time that each aircraft involved would use to calculate its separation distance from other aircraft. The problem, Capt. Swain noted, was, as IFALPA’s safety volunteers pointed out, "Whose measure of time would we be using?"

British pilots, for example, customarily round their distance times up when more than 29 seconds have elapsed after the minute. U.S. pilots generally truncate, or round down, their time for as many as 59 seconds.

In essence, then, "a British and a U.S. aircraft could actually be a minute and a half closer to each other" than either would realize, "and that’s assuming their clocks were set to the correct time," Capt. Swain notes.

"Flight management systems, too, have different rounding and truncating algorithms—sometimes even within the same system, so you never really know what information you’re getting out of the machine," he adds.

Questions raised about the accuracy of the timekeeping put the brakes on reduced longitudinal separation, "at least for the present," Capt. Swain says. A current proposal is to reduce the separation to 5 minutes for aircraft using datalink position reporting, "but I think we’re still a long way from that," he says.

More than 50 years after the phone call between Bart Cox and Denis Follows, pilots are still providing real-world feedback on safety initiatives.

An example: In the planning stages of RVSM, technicians were assuring planners "that wake turbulence wouldn’t be a problem beyond 500 feet," Capt. Swain says. "But at the first shot out of the box, people were screaming bloody murder about wake turbulence, as well as nuisance alerts from TCAS."

IFALPA and representatives from ATC provider states worked out a compromise whereby affected pilots would be able to offset as much as 2 nautical miles left or right to get out of the wake. Not surprisingly, the offset cleared up the nuisance alert problem as well. "Some things," Capt. Swain remarks pointedly, "take a pilot to know."

IFALPA’s technical committees provide pilot representation at literally scores of aviation meetings worldwide. Frequently, the IFALPA representative is the only pilot providing a real-world perspective on the deliberations at hand.

Capt. Peter Foreman (Canadian/Air Canada), former chairman of IFALPA’s Air Traffic Services (ATS) Committee, and still an accredited representative to the committee, concurs. The group has been monitoring the development of air traffic management systems and the host of new technologies that will be integrated to replace the current system of air traffic control.

The earliest version of FANS (Future Air Navigation System), which provides a datalink connection between the aircraft’s flight management computer and ATC to relay messages on clearances, route modifications, and other requests, was brought forward in its initial stages without adequate pilot representation, Capt. Foreman says. "The exposure of the system to pilot scrutiny has, in fact, led to considerable improvements in the system and even some limitations in its use," he asserts.

If some things take a pilot to know, others take a pilot who is native to the region to know.

Capt. Paul McCarthy (Delta), ALPA Executive Air Safety Chairman and former chairman of IFALPA’s Accident Analysis Committee, points out that U.S. ALPA’s aviation safety and accident investigation programs—mature as they are—have most surely benefited from IFALPA involvement.

"We, in U.S. ALPA, tend to be very insular. We tend to look at everything in the context of FAA/NTSB and Transport Canada/Transportation Safety Board of Canada, in the Boeing context, in the North American context, when, in fact, the vast majority of our members work for carriers that have a global reach," says Capt. McCarthy.

In accident investigations particularly, having pilot representatives who are conversant with local customs, officials, etc., can provide an entrée in some sticky situations.

In the Garuda crash in Fukuoka, Japan, in June 1996, a DC-10-30 with 275 persons aboard overran the runway after an aborted takeoff. The No. 3 engine suffered a sheared fuel line and caught fire. Three persons died, and the crew faced criminal charges.

The Japanese airline pilots, through IFALPA, immediately responded to the Garuda pilots, managed the police and the accident investigation, and worked for more than a year to exonerate the Garuda pilots, Capt. McCarthy reports. More recently, in December 2000, IFALPA also weighed in to secure the release of the Singapore Airlines Flight 006 crew (see "Pilot Report," p. 40).

"In every country my airline, Delta, flies to," Capt. McCarthy says, "there’s an IFALPA-affiliated member association whose members speak the language, know the local officials, know the customs, and are prepared and available. So in accident investigation, at its most basic level, they are able to help us out."

IFALPA also monitors situations that threaten to infringe on the rights of airline pilots, whether the country involved is a flight crew’s home turf, or they’re just passing through.

IFALPA, for example, provided support for New Zealand pilots in helping push through legislation in 1999 prohibiting cockpit voice and video records or transcripts from being used in criminal or administrative proceedings against pilots (see "Kiwis, CLOP, and the CVR," January 2000).

IFALPA also joined the protest to Dutch authorities for enforcing a law permitting random alcohol testing of flight crews at Schiphol Airport. The Federation sent a strongly worded letter saying the practice was not in compliance with ICAO standards for such testing. IFALPA and U.S. ALPA still hope to pressure the Dutch authorities to suspend the practice, but flight crews are still subject to testing.

In 2000, ALPA reorganized its air safety structure along the lines of IFALPA’s, which mirrors that of ICAO. Under the previous organizational structure, Capt. McCarthy says, "if I was working an issue, I had no idea where it would fall in either IFALPA or ICAO. The FAA compartmentalizes issues the way ICAO does, so we needed to conform to international best practices."

Quite simply, IFALPA provides the means to "tap into the talents" of its more than 100,000 member pilots in 100 nations around the world to deal with aviation issues, Capt. Dolan says.

And whether IFALPA is a group of pilots meeting face-to-face in a hotel conference room or dealing with an agency like ICAO, Capt. Murphy points out, "we have a truly global perspective to bring to the debate—we are the global voice of pilots."