Flight Plan for ALPA
ALPA’s President, Capt. Duane Woerth, checks the waypoints on the Association’s course for 2002.
Pilot, March/April 2002, p. 12
By Chris Dodd, Staff Writer
Air Line Pilot: So much has happened in the past several months. How would you describe the state of the union today?
Capt. Woerth: I think the union is in excellent shape. We’ve been focusing on our fundamental mission and our core plans and have had great success in every area—whether that is in the most basic effort, such as organizing, or in something central to the piloting profession, such as ensuring that we have stronger cockpit doors. Following the Board of Directors Pilot Unity resolution to make a specific effort to reach out to the large independents, bringing the Continental/Continental Express pilots into ALPA was a huge win for our members. And now we’re on course to bring in the FedEx pilots as well. With both of those pilot groups joining our ranks, we gain some 11,000 new members. That’s a raging success by anyone’s estimation.
In the recent round of contract bargaining for our major carriers—and certainly with the United and Delta contracts—we set a whole new standard for the top airline-industry wages in the world.
Our bargaining with other carriers also brought gains. The Comair strike in early 2001 was extremely successful. We’re working to banish the concept of so-called "regional" pilots—the management device to whipsaw pilot groups by convincing the public that these pilots are somehow different and should be compensated differently based on the type of equipment they fly. Air Wisconsin pilots, following the Comair agreement, raised the bar a few rungs higher.
Restoring pattern bargaining and progressive bargaining has clearly benefited all ALPA members.
Certainly, ALPA’s officers, plus the Executive Council and the Executive Board, have done a good job of managing our costs and our priorities. Following the tragic events of September 11, these bodies, along with ALPA’s staff members, moved quickly to implement a revised budget, lowering our costs in a more uncertain environment while retaining the same level of services for our members. As a result, by the end of 2001, ALPA was in as good a financial shape as it’s ever been in its history.
ALP: You’ve covered a lot of ground there. Going back a little, to the FedEx campaign—why is their coming back into the Association important?
Capt. Woerth: ALPA members clearly want their union to represent the piloting profession. If we’re going to succeed as the pilots’ advocate, we must represent the employees of the airline-industry leaders. So adding Continental and now FedEx, which is the world’s largest cargo carrier, is important.
To be able to drive the highest standards in pay, in working conditions, in safety, the pilots of the airline industry leaders must be part of ALPA.
That, frankly, is the basis for the whole pilot unity campaign. We want to get all of the independent pilot groups into our union, so that we can use our resources, expertise, and clout even better to shape the bargaining process and the eventual outcome.
ALP: Are we interested in other pilot groups besides FedEx?
Capt. Woerth: In the pilot unity campaign, we are interested in pursuing every independent pilot union in the United States and Canada—including those representing American, Southwest, UPS, Air Canada, AirTran, and Frontier. We are also pursuing a representation election at Gemini.
ALP: Now that you’re into your fourth year in office, you’ve heard from many line pilots. What are their issues? What’s on their minds?
Capt. Woerth: The biggest issue right now is probably job security. During the last seven years, pilots saw what was probably the most sustained growth in airline history. Never before had the airlines done so much hiring; never had so many pilots been promoted. But the U.S. economy had begun a recession even before September 11, and now the financial problems throughout the airline industry, along with the deep furloughs, have drastically reversed the airlines’ growth plans, revenues, and profitability.
What that seven-year growth period meant to our members was that they had every reason to believe that furloughs were unlikely to touch their lives. Well over half of the ALPA members now on the line had, before Sept. 1, 2001, never been furloughed. So job security, and having their company return to stability and profitability, is probably the No. 1 concern among ALPA members. Some of the previously most profitable and successful airlines—with which you would never connect the word "bankruptcy"—are either publicly using that word or are discussing the concept in their board rooms. It’s not escaping anybody.
The airline industry is still facing difficulties, and more people are concerned about their job security than about almost any other issue.
ALP: What does the airline industry’s fragile health bode for our larger carriers—for example, Continental and Northwest—facing negotiations this year?
Capt. Woerth: Our biggest concern is with the reduced demand for air travel. Even with as much capacity as has been taken out of U.S. and Canadian airlines right now, managements are still not facing up to the fundamental problems, particularly the error of using a flawed pricing model.
You know that demand is still less than the current supply of seats when you can pick up a newspaper and see that you can fly to London for $99, and almost the same price for anywhere in the United States, and sometimes they throw in a hotel room. Until demand and capacity match up, neither airline employees nor management can evade the fundamental economics of the airline industry. And yet, we have nothing to apologize for when we successfully conclude our best contracts. Our contracts are not the problem.
As I’ve told the Wall Street Journal and Barron’s and whoever has asked, the principal problem isn’t a wage problem. The problem is that airline managements are trying to use capacity and pricing models that don’t work anymore. A lot of aviation consultants have noted that the disparity between unrestricted business fares and giveaway leisure fares has caused a revolt among business travelers. You can’t give away 70 percent of your seats and hope that 15 people —the business travelers—will be willing to pay more than $1,000 apiece to fly your airline. Airline managements continue to cling to an outmoded pricing model that the marketplace does not support and will not yield a profit.
The raises in even our largest contracts, at United and Delta, which some pundits and government officials find easiest to target, when compounded over the past 10 years, have averaged 3½ to 4 percent. That’s hardly outrageous. Most U.S. and Canadian workers hoped or expected that they would receive at least that much of a wage increase. The fact is that the wage and work rule concessions we took in the early 90s were so deep and lasted so long that, when we caught up, we have barely been able to keep up with inflation. I will not apologize for any pilot contract gains, nor will I agree with those who say that pilots are the ones who have to sacrifice to turn the airline industry’s finances around.
An important lesson we learned in the early 1990s, when we allowed a lot of concessions right before the last economic recovery, was that even if airlines need help—and I’m not saying that they didn’t need help in the early 90s—managements are generally totally unwilling, once the airline industry returns to profitability, to give employees their fair share. From all the information I’ve been receiving, most people hope that airlines will recover this time by the summer—that will undoubtedly require reduced capacity. Airlines might even turn a profit by the end of the year if managements can control capacity and if the U.S. and Canadian economies recover the way some experts believe they might.
Unless an airline’s survival is at stake, our entering into long-term, deep, across-the-board concessions does not make sense. Airline managements are not interested in a 90-day deal —they want permanent, deep, long-lasting concessions. When concessions are required, management should present a feasible business plan with due diligence, reasonable snapback procedures, and other contractual returns; and then we can come to the table.
In addition to overcapacity during the last 18 months, one of the other factors that has been destroying profitability is rising fuel prices. When the cost of fuel went to more than $34 a barrel, and stayed more than $30 for the better part of a year and a half, and airlines were able to put only a small fuel surcharge on the price of a ticket, that was an enormous drain on profits. On top of high fuel prices, the continuing ATC delays, which sucked $5 billion a year out of the system, were another factor in the profitability equation.
Now that fuel is 50 percent cheaper than it was—we can hope that price will remain until next summer—with capacity constraints and some long-overdue changes to the pricing model, we have every reason to believe that things will turn around.
ALP: Reduced capacity raises the issue of the small jets. You’ve said all along that we cannot allow airline managements to use small jets as a wedge issue in the Association, but these airplanes have taken on increased significance in the current airline financial crisis. How is ALPA handling this?
Capt. Woerth: The real issue is capacity. One of the most important actions of the 2000 Board of Directors was establishing our Scope Impact Committee, and ALPA continues to place that issue high on our priority list. If scope language was important in 2000, when the airlines were in a growth mode, it’s doubly important now with so much retrenchment. The need for pilots to work together within their code-share and international alliance networks to find solutions is exponentially greater in this recession than it was before 2000. This cooperation will require more effort than ever before.
ALP: One of the statements you made early on in your presidency—and you repeated it in your opening remarks to the last Executive Board meeting—was that pilot groups should press their carriers to pick up the cost of flight pay loss. Why is this such an important issue?
Capt. Woerth: For more than 25 years, we’ve been asking the companies to fund flight pay loss for ALPA members who are performing required union duties. Some MECs have taken this request seriously, and others, well, not so seriously. In addition to my following a Board of Directors order to try to get flight pay loss covered, I believe that flight pay loss is usually nothing more than a gigantic rip-off.
Until a reserve pilot flies more than the reserve guarantee, any airline’s use of reserves is free to the company, including when they are used to cover trips for pilots on ALPA work. So, for ALPA to have to give them that money back, plus a giant override—it’s become a giant profit center for management, and that’s just wrong. When we have legitimate flight-pay-loss costs, ALPA should pay something, but the current system is simply wrong. Because of the overrides, flight pay loss is a gigantic expense to the union (more than $30 million in 2001) , and it puts a great burden on the MECs. That’s where most of the expense of flight pay loss falls—on them, and on the national administrative account, one half of which are our staff costs.
For years, the Canadian pilot groups got virtually every airline to agree to pay flight pay loss. It’s no cost to the company except above what you pay the reserve pilot, so that’s all that we should pay.
U.S. pilot groups do have our "best practices." The Delta pilots many years ago negotiated the most lucrative program of any of the company-paid flight-pay-loss systems. United and Northwest pilots have done a good job, as well. Among smaller pilot groups, I really should mention DHL —the MEC got a flight-pay-loss reimbursement from the company that was huge in proportion to its size. So it can be done; you really have to focus on it. Other pilot groups, I’m happy to report, have taken the opportunity to win flight pay loss for smaller projects, but still need to work to get the "big ticket" longer-term agreement—that the company is going to pay for a large portion of their MEC’s flight pay loss. We should never let go of this—it’s a big financial burden to the MEC, and it’s in the company’s interest to acknowledge that half of the work that we’re doing is the company’s work—whether it’s sorting out their scheduling problems or making their company work right, from safety to contract enforcement. All that, in my view, is legitimately a company expense.
ALP: You recently sounded an alarm concerning Air Canada management’s request for "modified" rights to allow for reciprocal cabotage by Canadian and U.S. carriers. How serious is this threat?
Capt. Woerth: I’m quite concerned. Not only is this a problem in the United States and Canada, but I am also hearing through IFALPA that all of Europe is going through "buyer’s remorse" in the limited assistance given to carriers there in their so-called bailout packages.
Some legislators have the mistaken belief that if a lot of airlines are just allowed to fail, that will be good for the industry—that if they just "bust" all these highly paid union members, dozens and dozens of low-cost, efficient carriers like Southwest will arise out of the ashes. You’d be shocked at the number of lawmakers in the United States, Canada, and throughout Europe who believe that to be true. They say that they’ve always believed strongly in transportation, that they want to deregulate it, that they want it to behave like a utility as well as a public service—they want it both ways—but that the way to keep the lowest consumer prices is to have maximum competition. If that means importing or allowing dumping of excess capacity and cheap labor from any source, or any region in the world, they think, What’s wrong with that?
The mood of people in the United States and Canada has a conservative bent right now. A red flag went up with the passage of "fast track" trade legislation in the House of Representatives. It was only a one-vote win, but the ultimate "free traders" have a tendency to believe that a win’s a win and that they should press their advantage. They had tried to get this for almost 15 years and lost every time. It wasn’t just a Republican issue. President Clinton had asked for fast track, too, and we beat it; but now that the House has approved it, I think that the legislature believes that there’s blood in the water and that they’ve rounded up the votes on fast track, and they want to press for everything.
The other thing that lawmakers do, and this is not the first time in history that they’ve done it, is to wrap themselves in the American flag and claim that pushing these issues is patriotic. That type of flag-waving patriotism is being used to steamroll a lot of bad ideas through Congress.
Every ALPA member on both sides of the border—in the United States and Canada—needs to understand that even though the issue of cabotage has been raised before, and we’ve been successful in defeating it before, we’re particularly vulnerable now. We’ve probably never been more politically vulnerable than we are today.
ALP: Is that a plug for ALPA-PAC?
Capt. Woerth: To my mind, ALPA-PAC contributions need to double what they are now. With the risks that we’re facing to the airline industry, and the terrible consequences to our careers and our families, the fact that, across the union, fewer than one in ten members contribute anything is unacceptable. It won’t allow us to achieve the political victories we need.
" I’d like us to be recognized for the fact that we helped aviation to grow safely into the world’s largest business, because we demanded that it be safe."
I am still concerned that ever since President Bush took office, he has used or threatened to use a Presidential Emergency Board to intervene in the collective bargaining process for the airlines. Sens. McCain and Lott proposed the most onerous anti-labor bill in recent memory, which would have basically stripped airline workers of the right to strike.
Combine that with the mood of a country that wrongly believes the airlines were "bailed out" and would be largely unsympathetic to us, and we are very vulnerable to having the balance of power in collective bargaining changing for an entire generation if we don’t pull out every available stop to try to change this.
ALP: What about ALPA’s safety priorities? Have they changed since September 11?
Capt. Woerth: Obviously, the security issues that we have always been working on have moved to the front burner. What we can’t let go of is our basic game plan, Schedule with Safety, which we’ve had right from the beginning. As one example, I’m truly disappointed that making meaningful changes to the flight and duty time rules seems to have been deep-sixed again, even though we came really close to getting it through.
With all the focus on terrorism and security, we can’t let go of the other factors that involve aviation safety. Obviously, security is important, but every airline pilot knows that dozens of other issues need major attention.
For one, all of our concerns about ATC modernization haven’t gone away simply because of September 11. We need to keep the heat on all those other areas while we are simultaneously trying to improve and have a manageable, secure, aircraft and airport environment.
ALP: Next year, of course, is a milestone for the industry—the 100th anniversary of the Wright brothers’ first flights—and people around the world will celebrate the advances we’ve made in aviation. How would you like the world to recognize the pilots’ part in it?
Capt. Woerth: ALPA observed its 70th anniversary last year. Between ALPA’s safety structure and our communications efforts, we really did a bang-up job of getting recognition for our achievements. So many of these stories—the Wright brothers, Lindbergh’s solo transatlantic flight—catch people’s imagination. But in that same period of time, if Dave Behncke and his pilots hadn’t demanded and formed a union to make sure flying was safe, it’s highly unlikely that the airline industry would have developed as it did.
Without ALPA, the accident rate wouldn’t have improved at a rapid enough rate to make aviation a reliable, viable transportation option. Who knows? We might have developed high-speed trains instead.
The nation might have gone down an entirely different "track" if Schedule with Safety and the Air Line Pilots Association hadn’t transformed aviation into the safest mode of transportation, instead of a hobby for daredevils. I’d like us to be recognized for the fact that we helped aviation to grow safely into the world’s largest business, because we demanded that it be safe.