Riding Out a Hurricane

ALPA leaders at the 89th Regular Executive Board meeting keep a wary eye on the airline industry’s continuing turmoil.

Air Line Pilot, July/August 2002, p.12
By Chris Dodd, Staff Writer

With employers weakened by post-9/11 and recession trauma, and with unfavorable winds of antiunion politics and shifting operational schemes swirling in the mix, ALPA finds itself in the "eye of the hurricane," the Association’s president, Capt. Duane Woerth, told the ALPA Executive Board in May.

As dark as the period immediately after Sept. 11, 2001, was for ALPA pilots, Capt. Woerth told the MEC leaders gathered for their twice-a-year business meeting, "ALPA’s struggle to protect and defend our profession, to provide one level of safety and security for all pilots of both passenger and cargo airliners, is in front of us, not behind us."

The allusion to cargo carriers was deliberate, as a highlight of the 2-day meeting was Executive Board action to complete the merger agreement with the FedEx Pilots Association (see sidebar). ALPA’s president, throughout his remarks, keyed in on the importance of a stronger, more committed union to shore up against "the backside of the storm [which] is about to hit us with full force."

Since the 11th, Capt. Woerth has characterized the airlines as a "financial basket case," and their fortunes don’t appear to have measurably improved, he told the Board.

"With our second merger in two years, we as an international union should be very proud of our accomplishments...."
- Capt. Duane Woerth

An outmoded pricing model, competition from low-cost carriers that have increased capacity since September 2001, and staggering security costs that "effectively cancelled out relief" to passenger carriers have continued to stymie the airlines’ recovery, Capt. Woerth noted.

Stooges and Kops

Cargo carriers have not been burdened with similar security costs, but that is "a double-edged sword," Capt. Woerth added. "The truth is that cargo security is a joke. The Three Stooges or the Keystone Kops could hijack any cargo airliner.… Of our nation’s lengthy priority list, attaining One Level of Safety and Security for cargo has to be at the top of the page."

With repeated encouragement for line pilots and ALPA leaders to support ALPA-PAC, he cautioned both groups that the Association was facing "an extremely hostile political environment." The so-called "baseball arbitration bill" proposed by Sens. John McCain (R–Ariz., former chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee) and Trent Lott (R–Miss., former Senate majority leader) is still very much alive and could gain more leverage should the Republicans regain control in November.

Capt. Woerth also decried as "pure harassment" new proposals by the Labor Department to require unions to detail each expenditure over $250. The proposal would be "extraordinarily expensive and divert unions from their mission of protecting members," and because slip-ups are inevitable, "guarantees that every investigation can lead to the prosecution and fine of a labor union." Under this proposal, ALPA’s LM-2 report would be 75,000 pages long and 25 feet high. It would cost ALPA $1.5 million per year just to hire enough people and set up the software to comply.

‘Six Degrees of Separation’

Airline business arrangements that turn carriers into "logistical enterprises"—ACMI (aircraft, crew, maintenance, and insurance) operations on the cargo side and "fee for departure" deals and pressure on code-share partners to compete for contracts on the passenger side—have reconfigured the airline industry into a shifty game of "Six Degrees of Separation from the Money," Capt. Woerth warned.

Since deregulation of the U.S. airline industry, he added, managements have evolved into "these logistical enterprises, involving cargo or passengers, with ways to separate pilots and airplanes from what they consider the real core business of the airline—sales and marketing." When code-sharing withstood its legal challenges, "the possibility and practice of separating pilots and airplanes into as many different companies as possible and as far away from the money trail as possible accelerated at warp speed."

For that reason, "every pilot group —both large and small—needs a scope clause," Capt. Woerth declared. Without it, "transferring work away from a signed contract doesn’t even require managements to break into a sweat.… They can do it over lunch."

ALPA’s President cited the importance of the Scope Impact Committee, which action of the 2000 Board of Directors created and which has required MECs to create standing committees and meet with code-share partners to work toward solutions on legitimate job security concerns.

"Let’s be perfectly candid here," Capt. Woerth told the Executive Board, "if there was understandable stress in any of these relationships during the record growth years of the late 1990s,the stress when more than 5,000 pilots are furloughed and/or terminated is infinitely greater. That’s the simple truth.…"

Issues in reverse

ALPA’s first vice-president, Capt. Dennis Dolan, who chairs ALPA’s Security Task Force, briefed the Executive Board on security. He noted that the public ranks security issues in reverse order—focusing on screening checkpoints, arming the cockpit, and reinforcing cockpit doors—than most pilots—who press for transportation worker identification cards or restoring a reciprocal jumpseat program. That is, he explained, because the first three are issues with which the public had some exposure (albeit shallow) and because the press often gives prominent play to a "sexy issue" like arming pilots.

"The things that are most important to us [ID cards and jumpseat access] are last in their eyes, not first," he pointed out. "That’s why it’s much more difficult for us to convince people that these are our priorities."

Capt. Dolan noted that progress on the TWIC card has been "slow moving," as the Transportation Security Administration, established after 9/11 to administer many of the new security programs, determined it would do its own research and development on an airport ID "smart card" program rather than tap into the extensive groundwork that ALPA and other organizations had already done. He said that ALPA would be "counting on some of our friends in Congress to press [for answers] on why more progress has not been made.…We know the system is available and that it works. Let’s implement it."

Capt. Dolan also added that the Association had had a number of meetings with the FAA and was "very close" to restoring the reciprocal jumpseat program. At the time of the meeting, ALPA security volunteers and staff were working with the agency to draft a document to provide guidance to carriers on restoring jumpseating practices. Discussions with the FAA have focused on security requirements as they relate to an ID and employment-verification process.

Later, following committee discussion, the Executive Board passed a resolution pledging the Association’s full support to the proposed verification procedures being developed and directing ALPA’s President to take "any and all additional appropriate measures" to ensure that the reciprocal jumpseat is restored. The Board also pledged the necessary resources to the Association’s "Qualified to Fly, Qualified to Defend" campaign promoting a voluntary program for arming airline cockpits.

A new design for security

Because of the increased responsibility that the Association’s security personnel have shouldered since Sept. 11, 2001, Capt. Dolan said, ALPA plans to redesign and reorganize its National Security Committee. The Task Force was a good "stop-gap measure," he noted, but was never designed to deal with the efforts that will have to be directed to security for the long haul.

He suggested that the redesigned committee be project-oriented, as ALPA’s Engineering and Air Safety Department largely is now, to deal with FAA and other government initiatives in a cost-effective and efficient manner. "As the FAA issues its ADs—its airworthiness directives—and we have someone to plug into those, we want to make certain that when the TSA issues its security directives, we’ll have somebody to plug into those."

He called for more line pilot involvement in the Association’s security activities, saying that the Association preferred to build the new structure "from the bottom up, rather than the top down."

Checking the War Chest

Capt. John Feldvary, the Association’s vice-president–finance/treasurer, reported on the Association’s finances. The emergency actions to reduce spending begun after Sept. 11, 2001, left the Association in better financial shape than had been predicted, he noted, but he warned that the serious financial difficulties at major carriers such as United and US Airways could still destabilize that situation. "We have not bottomed out yet," he said.

Partly as a response, the Executive Board proposed a "tweak" in the funding mechanism for the Major Contingency Fund, the Association’s "War Chest."

Established in 1985 to fund MEC activities in advanced stages of contract negotiations or during a strike or to treat issues of urgent concern that significantly and adversely affect the profession, the fund now has a cash balance of $70.3 million, Capt. Feldvary reported.

The changes, which are still subject to ratification by the full Board of Directors (that vote to be counted on July 10), provides for the Executive Council, during the budgeting process and the fiscal year, to provide for an allocation of a portion of the 0.1 percent of the 1.95 percent of dues formerly allotted to the Administrative and Support Account to be used to fund the MCF, so long as Association services to the members are not adversely affected.

The Executive Council, which reviews all of the Association’s financial planning, including preparation of the annual budget, would monitor the new funding arrangement to assess its continued effect on the MCF.

The modification would allow the MCF, which has come under stress in recent years because of strikes or near-strikes by several airline pilot groups, not only to stay above its $65 million "floor," but also to grow so that it might reach self-sufficiency.

During the meeting, the Executive Board approved an MCF allocation of $2 million for the ATA MEC and an allocation of $1 million for the Champion Air MEC for strike preparedness programs. ATA had been in negotiations since May 2000 and Champion since Feb. 26, 1999.

Capt. Jerry Mugerditchian, vice-president–administration/secretary, reported that the Association at the time of the meeting had 51,778 active members, with a total of 4,743 on furlough. The number of inactive participants (6,816) was 2,400 more than 6 months ago, reflecting the merger of TWA into American Airlines.

Emery custodianship

The Executive Board also affirmed the decision of the Executive Council to place the Emery pilot group into custodianship. The company shut down operations of the cargo carrier August 2001, after the FAA challenged maintenance operations at the carrier following crew member complaints. Emery remains embroiled in an NTSB investigation into the crash of an Emery flight in February 2000, which is continuing and which is expected to lead to a broader probe of maintenance practices at other cargo carriers.

Capt. Woerth, who noted that the pilot group had held out hope that the carrier might resume operations at some point, said that possibility is now remote, and under ALPA’s Constitution and By-Laws, the Association "could not reestablish an MEC with no active members."

He praised former Emery MEC chairman, Capt. Tom Rachford, who "was the reason that Emery pilots got to ALPA in the first place" and who, Capt. Woerth said, was "relentless in his pursuit" of questionable operations at the carrier. Capt. Rachford, who had served as an ALPA executive vice-president, received a standing ovation.

The Executive Board also heard a presentation from the Special Representational Structure Review Committee (SRSRC), tasked by the 2000 Board of Directors with examining the Association’s representation framework.

Capt. Paul Rice (United), one of three members of the Committee, reported that at present, the SRSRC is looking at local council election cycles and terms of office. Currently, representatives serve 2-year terms. Councils are divided into two election groups, with half the groups voting on officers each year.

Under that scenario, roughly 50 percent of the membership of ALPA’s MECs turn over each year. At the past two ALPA Board of Directors meetings, only 30 percent of delegates had ever been to an ALPA BOD meeting before. That amount of turnover takes its toll on an organization, Capt. Rice said.

Previous ALPA groups that studied the Association’s representational structures (in 1985 and 1992) suggested that ALPA adopt 3-year terms for local council representatives and three election cycles.

Capt. Rice said that the SRSRC also favors such a system, as only a third of the BOD would turn over each year and training provided at ALPA’s annual Leadership Conference, usually in February, could be offered to new representatives early in their terms. The Committee expects to explain the concept to ALPA councils over the next several months and to present a formal recommendation to the BOD this fall. If the BOD adopts a cycle of 3-year terms and three election groups this fall, the transition to a new system could be completed by March 2006, Capt. Rice said.

Electronic communications

The Executive Board also passed several resolutions regarding electronic communications—a boon to an organization whose membership is technologically advanced and perpetually in motion, but a potential risk because it often transmits sensitive information.

E-mail distribution lists have caught on as a quick communications tool for ALPA’s administrative offices, as well as individual MECs and LECs, to transmit information to members, and the Board expanded the Association’s printing and mailing policy to cover such transmissions.

The new policy sets out procedures for use of mass e-mail, including who will administer access to the lists, who will be included, and perhaps most importantly, who will oversee content. The Board directed that each MEC or LEC chairman is responsible for the content of any material produced, distributed, e-mailed, and/or mailed by or on behalf of the MEC or the LEC. Mass e-mail sent by an MEC or LEC chairman (or the person’s designee) must be reviewed for content before distribution through a process established by the MEC.

The Executive Board further amended the ALPA Administrative Manual urging representatives to use caution in using e-mail for sending or storing highly confidential or sensitive information "as the confidentiality of information transmitted across the Internet cannot be guaranteed."

The Executive Board also revised policy governing web access provided to pilot groups placed into custodianship, and also regarding who may approve Intranet access for members in furloughed or inactive-participant classifications. Rather than having user privileges revoked outright, members who fall into bad standing will have those privileges limited to viewing ALPA mail and their individual account information.

The Board also directed that furloughed members from one airline who have been hired by another airline but retain seniority rights with their former employer can, with approval of both MECs, be granted access to both airlines’ ALPA Intranet sites.

In other action, the Board

• agreed to "gross up" (i.e., make up the taxable amount) on ALPA-paid expenses to all members in good standing who incur such expenses;

• amended ALPA’s Administrative Manual to exempt from ALPA dues retroactive pay that ALPA members earned during the period in which they were on probation. The action was sought after the signing of the Delta contract, in which approximately 700 pilots were on probation for at least part of the retroactive period from May 2, 2000, through July 1, 2001;

• reduced, by $250, the cost of each basic computer package authorized to be provided to each LEC member;

• revised ALPA Administrative Manual language regarding Board of Directors delegate committees, to reflect the inclusion of new seniority block status representatives and instructor representatives; and

• authorized the transfer of $156,629 from the Operating Contingency Fund to the Sun Country MEC account to bring it in line with the Association’s spending limit policy.

The Board also, subject to approval by the Board of Directors, amended the ALPA Constitution and By-Laws

• to increase to nine the number of members of the Election and Ballot Certification Board (EBCB), to sit as three-member panels, with the ALPA Vice-President–Administration/Secretary having authority to appoint as many as three alternate members when necessary; the change was proposed because of the periodic unavailability of EBCB members for ballot counts or protests; and

• in its language concerning balloting of union-wide governing bodies and members of the Association, to reflect electronic, telephone, hand-delivered, and faxed ballots; pending the BOD’s approval of these constitutional changes, the Executive Board also proposed new policy for allowing union-wide officers, governing body members, and designated staff access to the progress of balloting as it proceeds.

Unity Campaign on Track: 'Absolutely, Positively'

A year almost to the day after ALPA’s Executive Board finalized a merger agreement returning the Continental pilots to ALPA, on May 21 the Executive Board approved a resolution dotting the i’s and crossing the t’s on a similar merger with the FedEx Pilots Association (FPA).

The Executive Board approved by acclamation an agreement that was seen as a major component in the 2000 Board of Directors’ pilot unity campaign, particularly with the intensified interest in cargo safety and security. The agreement, which became effective June 1, provides ALPA membership for all FPA members in good standing, seamless transition of FPA representation to the ALPA governance structure, an Executive Vice-President position with representation on ALPA’s Executive Council, and maintenance of a fully staffed office in Memphis.

"With our second merger in two years, we as an international union should be very proud of our accomplishments," ALPA’s president, Capt. Duane Woerth, said following the vote. "Ten years after adopting our Global Pilot Strategy, we are once again taking a significant step closer to achieving our goal of bringing all pilot groups together so that professional pilots speak with a strong, single voice in contract negotiations, legislative affairs, and safety issues."

FPA, an independent union, held collective bargaining rights for the carrier’s 4,200 pilots after they left ALPA in 1996.

Capt. Woerth invited a contingent of FedEx pilots, all past and present members of the FPA Board, to the stage, and praised their positive efforts. With 95 percent of eligible FPA members voting, 90.5 percent of those cast ballots in favor of the merger. He termed the results "astounding" and said the merger would be "of mutual benefit to all parties, and all pilots."

Capt. Woerth presented a certificate establishing the FedEx Master Executive Council to former FPA president, Capt. David Webb, who transitioned to new FedEx MEC chairman.

"The FedEx pilots made this decision," Capt. Webb told the Board. "They made an individual decision to take charge of their careers, and I support and applaud them."

Capt. Webb quoted from remarks of the former FedEx MEC vice-chairman, Capt. Richard D. "Rick" MacGibbon, to the ALPA Board of Directors in 1996, the final appearance of the FedEx pilot leaders before an ALPA governing body. Capt. MacGibbon’s emotional speech pledged that the pilot group would return to ALPA.

"When we as ALPA members fail to appreciate why we are part of a strong national union," Capt. Mac-Gibbon told the BOD, "the union comes apart, one member at a time.… We all have differences. Our differences can be either our strength or our weakness. Expose that weakness, and management will use it to undermine our union. Conquer our differences, and we will gain the strength of our union."

Capt. MacGibbon recalled that "unity, commitment, and effective representation" had been the theme for the earlier representation campaign at FedEx. "It may well be time for every member of this Association to review those precepts and why we are a union. In saying good-bye, we must entrust the union to your care. We expect that we will find [it] even stronger upon our return. And we will return."

Capt. Webb concluded, "We have done that today."

On a humorous note, saying, "We don’t need these anymore," Capt. Webb presented Capt. Woerth with a plastic bag filled with shredded red paper—the remnants of "the infamous red letters" that FedEx CEO Fred Smith routinely sent to pilots warning against the union.

He also presented ALPA’s President with a model of a FedEx MD-11 inscribed along one side with "One Goal—One Voice" and along the second with the adverb pair made famous in the overnight carrier’s advertising campaigns: "Absolutely, Positively. FedEx ALPA, June 1, 2002."—CD