ALPA Pilots Pull Together

ALPA’s union-wide and MEC programs help brother and sister pilots weather the furlough storm.

By Rob Wiley, Staff Writer
Air Line Pilot, September 2003, p.12

The writer who penned the immortal words, "These are the times that try men’s souls," must have been an airline pilot, or married to one. You have to search far and wide these days to find good news about the flying profession. Most of the news is bad—pension problems, concessionary contracts, and furloughs as far as the eye can see.

The furlough list could be the unkindest cut of all, as thousands of highly skilled professionals have been told their services are no longer necessary. As of late July, about one-fifth of ALPA’s members had felt the sting of job loss. And while some airlines were recalling pilots by that date, many ALPA pilots were still on the streets. For every recalled pilot, about seven peers are still out there, struggling to balance budgets and avoid economic disaster.

"We take care of our furloughed pilots, even if they go to another ALPA carrier. We make sure that they still have access to the United MEC website, and they can still receive support through me if they need it."
F/O Todd Coomans, United MEC Furlough Coordinator

Furloughed pilots do not face their ordeal alone, however. In keeping with the union spirit, the ALPA’s union-wide staff and individual master executive councils put together support programs for their furloughed members. The prevailing idea was to provide as much help as financially feasible for fellow pilots suffering through a disaster not of their making.

Union-wide support

Much of ALPA’s union-wide support for furloughed pilots centers on the "ALPA Furlough Resource Programs" link on the home page of the Association’s website, The Communications Department staff put together several sections designed to give furloughed pilots a variety of options, background information, available resources, and contacts to help them through the critical months. The section includes information on health and insurance options, job leads, links to other union support organizations (i.e., AFL-CIO, Union Privilege Programs, etc.), and a financial planning aid.

Among the issues facing furloughed pilots and their families, perhaps the most emotional in the United States is health insurance. ALPA’s website contains answers to critical questions and links to other sites for pilots who need help with their insurance needs. COBRA is the U.S. law that allows employees and/or their dependents to elect to continue their healthcare coverage under certain circumstances that would otherwise result in the loss of such coverage. The massive furloughs throughout the U.S. airline industry qualify as events that trigger healthcare-continuation coverage under COBRA. The ALPA website explains the various options available under COBRA, and most MECs have programs in place to help furloughed pilots cope with their immediate insurance needs.

"I think COBRA is the biggest issue," says ALPA’s vice-president-administration/secretary, Capt. Paul Rice. "The larger MECs have all stepped up to the plate and voted for assessments on their memberships to help their furloughed pilots with COBRA payments. Their members are supporting their furloughed brothers and sisters by making those payments."

Additionally, ALPA’s Executive Board, at its May meeting, directed the Retirement and Insurance Department and the R&I Committee to determine the feasibility of establishing an ALPA-sponsored health plan. The Committee is to make an interim report to the Executive Board in October and a final report, with recommendations, to the Executive Board in May 2004.

Other ALPA website links provide information on the AFL-CIO Working Families Health Care Center; Union Privilege Programs; Women, Infants, and Children program; and the State Children’s Health Insurance Program.

The site also contains considerable job information, from links to U.S., Canadian, and international companies looking for pilots to government agencies looking for experienced aviators to fill aviation-related positions, as well as information on various smaller airlines giving interview preference to furloughed ALPA pilots when they have available positions.

"We also post international jobs through our relationship with IFALPA," Capt. Rice says. "And we still mail ALPA materials, especially Air Line Pilot, to our furloughed members to keep them informed."

The Executive Board also approved an ALPA-sponsored agreement with Air, Inc., the airline pilot career information firm, to make its services available to furloughed pilots. ALPA pilots furloughed after Sept. 1, 2001, may purchase an annual membership in Air, Inc., for $50, with the Association paying the rest of the membership fee (which is normally $239). Also, ALPA pilots furloughed after that date will receive a free e-subscription to Air Line Pilot Careers magazine, as well as the company’s e-application system, AirApps.

Pilots may sign up for this service from their personal home page on ALPA’s website,, at the Furlough Resource page. Members without web access may register for membership by calling 800-JET-JOBS.

Registered pilots will receive

• all on-line and printed materials, including Air, Inc.’s Application Handbook, Career Guide, Airline Information and Address Directory, Airline Pilot Job Monthly Newsletter, and Airline Pilot Careers magazine;

• career counseling through Air, Inc.’s toll-free telephone number;

• a reduced fee of $125 to attend any scheduled Air, Inc., seminar this year; and

• other on-line career support, including e-application and job referral system via the website.

In addition to these programs, Air Line Pilot has a special discount rate for ads placed by furloughed pilots.

Capt. Rice, who himself was furloughed twice earlier in his flying career, notes that ALPA is working hard in the hope that furloughed pilots can return to work in a rejuvenated airline industry in the near future.

"Almost all the airlines have a number of working pilots who have been furloughed before," he says. "They recognize what today’s furloughed pilots are going through."

Delta Air Lines

The Delta MEC hired First Officer Larry Deist as furlough administrator on Feb. 1, 2002, the day after he was furloughed. F/O Deist spent 13 months in the air as a Delta first officer before his furlough.

His experience with furlough issues came firsthand.

"The Delta MEC wanted a furloughed pilot as their full-time furlough administrator," F/O Deist says. "I’m in the office five days a week, and with my cell phone, pager, and laptop computer, I’m also available after hours. We wanted that avenue available for furloughed pilots and their families so that we could be as responsive as possible in answering the questions and handling the issues that result from being furloughed."

The MEC also set up an emergency relief fund that provides no-interest loans or outright grants for furloughed pilots with severe financial stress. At the end of the year, F/O Deist says, the MEC provides a holiday fund for fellow pilots, funded by general contributions. Last year, the MEC raised more than $100,000, which worked out to be about $100 for each furloughed pilot and family.

The MEC was also successful in working with Delta management to provide a minimum of 3 months of company-paid medical and dental coverage for all furloughed pilots.

F/O Deist notes that the original contract called for 1 or 2 months of company coverage for furloughed pilots with less than 3 years of service. "The industry standard was three months," he says, "and our MEC worked with management on this. Now, all our furloughed pilots are getting a minimum of three months company-paid coverage on the way out, which is then followed by 18 months of coverage paid for by the Delta pilots."

Money for the extra health insurance coverage—what F/O Deist calls "the biggest thing the Delta MEC has done so far"—comes from an assessment not to exceed 1 percent on active Delta pilots’ salaries. The MEC passed the resolution specifically to help pay for the health care coverage for furloughed pilots. The current resolution runs through November; and at press time, extending it for another year was being voted on (the vote was scheduled to end August 10).

The assessment will have provided medical benefits for 2 years as of November, and approval is expected to continue the program another year.

To receive the DALPA benefits, furloughed pilots must sign a verification form that attests to their legitimate need. The Delta MEC requires this on a semiannual basis. As long as a furloughed pilot has a current verification form on file, he or she can receive this benefit.

Among the issues facing furloughed pilots and their families, perhaps the most emotional in the United States is health insurance. ALPA’s website contains answers to critical questions and links to other sites for pilots who need help with their insurance needs.

The MEC has also designated a section of its website as a Furloughed Pilot Support Network, dedicated strictly to furlough issues. The site contains daily communications briefings, with weekly hotlines and monthly newsletters also disseminating information about job opportunities, health care issues, MEC news, and different job links. The idea is to keep furloughed pilots and their families involved and active.

"We also have a sponsor program through which active pilots work individually with furloughed pilots to add a more personal touch," F/O Deist says. "Each sponsor pilot works with as many furloughed pilots as he or she wants; some volunteer to help three or more."

The MEC has also added to its website and in its newsletter a section called, "Services Offered by Fellow Pilots." The section markets furloughed pilots who are trying other careers—car sales, real estate, mortgage loans, etc. The site includes information on handymen, piano tuners, and pool cleaners. The information is directed at line pilots who may need a particular service.

"For instance, we had a captain call recently and ask if we had any realtors in Dallas," F/O Deist says. "We actually have three furloughed guys in the area who are realtors. The captain bought his home through a furloughed pilot, which obviously helped the furloughed pilot. That section is growing exponentially, because it’s focused on businesses and services that active pilots can use and support their fellow pilots at the same time. That’s a good thing."

F/O Deist hasn’t been shy in asking for support from the Association as a whole. For example, when his members asked about the life insurance program offered through ALPA, he called ALPA’s Herndon, Va., offices and asked if his furloughed pilots could continue getting the group rate. R&I Department staffers asked New York Life, and New York Life said, yes; so furloughed pilots now have access to the same group rates available to active ALPA members.

"I do use the larger ALPA and its furlough section on its website, which highlights ALPA’s one-year special membership deal with Air, Inc., and other industrywide programs," F/O Deist says.

"Any help I need in communications, I get it from the ALPA Communications Department; and other Herndon staff members help me with membership questions, eligibility questions, insurance questions, access to the website, all those types of things. And our newsletter goes up to ALPA’s Printing and Mailing Department to be published."

And while the recovery for many furloughed pilots seems far away, the Delta pilots have made these tough times much easier to bear.

"We had one furloughed pilot pass away with no life insurance or anything," F/O Deist says. "His wife was left with an 11-year-old and nowhere to go. The Delta MEC took care of the funeral expenses as well as her short-term living expenses, college funds, financial advice, and job-search tools.

"We’re just trying to get by and do what we can for the pilots and their families. It’s not something we expected, I guess, so we’re just trying to get through it the best we can and hope for the best outcome."

United Airlines

United Airlines’ MEC also hired a furloughed pilot as its furlough administrator. First Officer Todd Coomans was furloughed in October 2001, and the MEC hired him as a part-time consultant in July 2002.

"It was supposed to be a short-lived thing, but it’s become job security that I don’t really want to have," F/O Coomans says. "I want this job to go away."

With United mired in the bankruptcy process, F/O Coomans will likely keep this job for a while. By mid-July, United had furloughed more than 1,500 pilots—the second-largest group next to US Airways among ALPA-represented airlines—with more planned at the end of July and August. The United MEC offers as much support for furloughed pilots as it can.

"Our furloughees are entitled to all the mailings from the MEC and from ALPA-wide bodies since they’ve been furloughed," F/O Coomans says. "We have a furlough fund program that reimburses furloughed pilots for medical and dental insurance costs. We pay out about $150,000 a month in insurance costs, all funded by assessing the active members."

The United MEC also uses its website to provide links to furloughed pilots who have become knowledgeable about insurance and are helping fellow furloughees find other forms of insurance to ensure that they are covered when COBRA benefits end after 18 months. The MEC reimburses pilots for whatever insurance they are able to get, F/O Coomans says.

The MEC also acts as liaison between furloughed pilots and different groups looking for pilots. Also, the Compuserve Forum contains a section where furloughed pilots may share job leads back and forth. In addition, the airline’s management has set up a headhunter group for furloughed pilots, although F/O Coomans says feedback from pilots who have used the service has been scarce.

"We take care of our furloughed pilots, even if they go to another ALPA carrier," F/O Coomans says. "We make sure that they still have access to the United MEC website, and they can still receive support through me if they need it."

Firsthand experience with the furlough experience helps F/O Coomans find ways to support his pilots.

"That’s why they brought in a furloughed pilot—first to give one of us a job, and second, we have our own experience to draw from," he says. "As more pilots are furloughed, I’m reaching out to get feedback from the pilots I know from those initially furloughed groups and from people who have volunteered to help out. If a furloughee has a problem I really can’t help with, I do ask the furloughee to get back to me with whatever resolution he or she comes up with on the problem. Then I’m able to post that information or send it out to the furloughees and let them know that someone else has had a problem with this and that this is what we have to do to resolve it."

F/O Coomans spends 3 days a week in the United MEC’s Chicago office. While the MEC had no full-fledged program for furloughed pilots in place when he was hired, the cupboard wasn’t completely bare.

"The MEC had the Family Awareness Committee, which provided support for furloughed pilots on an ad hoc basis," F/O Coomans says. "But the MEC felt that someone who could specialize in specific issues should be in the office at least part-time to support our furloughed members."

He spends much of his telephone and Internet time speaking with spouses. F/O Coomans notes that in many pilot families, the spouse handles all the bills and insurance situations. He’s more than willing to speak with anyone who needs help.

"As far as I’m concerned, the family was furloughed along with the employee, and they are going through this whole thing as a family unit," he says. "We try to offer support where we can. In fact, the newsletter we send to them is called Family Awareness News. We send out special editions just to furloughed pilots, and it’s definitely designed for the whole family’s use."

While F/O Coomans and the United MEC tried to maintain a quarterly publication schedule for the newsletter, the growing number of furloughed pilots made that too expensive. Previous editions of the publication are available on the MEC website, along with individual articles that cover various other issues. F/O Coomans and the MEC are seriously considering a switch to a web-based program to reduce costs as much as possible.

And while a big part of his job is morale-based, F/O Coomans sometimes has to remind furloughed pilots of reality. "The advice I try to give most furloughed pilots is that they need to continue to head forward, which is very difficult at this point," he says. "My hope for all our furloughed pilots is that when United calls back, they’ll be in a good enough position to actually think about it and not go back automatically, that they’ll actually have to make a choice. That’s the healthiest way to look at this whole thing."

Northwest Airlines

At Northwest, the MEC Membership Committee chairman, First Officer Jeff Dyrhaug, also acts as the furlough administrator. By mid-July, Northwest had furloughed almost 800 pilots and was scheduled to continue furloughs through January 2004, on pace for 1,068 total furloughs.

The Northwest MEC offers pretty much the same benefits to furloughed pilots as MECs of other large pilot groups: 22 months of paid medical benefits added to the company’s initial 2 months’ coverage, job links on the MEC website, www. , and a sponsorship program. Northwest pilots agreed to an assessment on their pay to help cover 22 months of health insurance, giving furloughed pilots a total of 24 months of coverage.

The MEC also won some other benefits from Northwest management. "Our negotiators were able to secure pass travel for furloughed pilots and their families through 2005, which we didn’t have when the furloughs started," F/O Dyrhaug says. "The negotiators were able to tie it to the Delta codeshare agreement, and we were able to obtain pass travel through 2005."

F/O Dyrhaug also noted that furloughed Northwest pilots get an inside track for pilot jobs at Pinnacle Airlines. They still have to go through the regular hiring process, but they get interviews in a more timely manner and possibly get hired a bit quicker.

"At least 75 percent of the Pinnacle hiring class has to be Northwest pilots if they are available and can be hired," he says. "That’s a good deal, but I don’t think enough Northwest pilots are applying to reach the 75 percent level yet."

F/O Dyrhaug noted that even if hired by Pinnacle, Northwest pilots still keep their seniority number with the parent company when (and if) they get recalled, as long as they have completed 18 months of service with Pinnacle.

Hard negotiations also earned furloughed pilots a recall bypass, a major issue in deciding on taking another job. "We had recall language in our contract, but the negotiators were able to get a recall bypass letter of agreement," F/O Dyrhaug says. "With the LOA, furloughed pilots may bypass the recall for four years, which is a lot longer than they were able to before.

"For example, if company XYZ wants to hire a furloughed Northwest pilot but wants that pilot to commit to a four-year contract, the pilot can take the job with a clear conscience. A pilot whom Northwest does recall is allowed to bypass the recall and still maintain the old seniority number and all recall rights intact for three to four years. That’s really a nice deal; a lot of pilots weren’t getting job offers because other airlines were afraid they weren’t going to get their time out of the furloughed pilots."

The MEC provides access to a job placement firm that acts as a headhunter and job coach, but members have to pay for the service out of their own pocket. F/O Dyrhaug likes to refer furloughed pilots to the Air, Inc., link on ALPA’s website,

The MEC also set up a sponsor program for furloughed pilots and their families. Active-member volunteers work with furloughed pilots—usually one sponsor for 10 furloughed pilots—and act as sounding boards for the furloughees and, theoretically, their families. F/O Dyrhaug says that the Northwest MEC has no formal support groups specifically for furloughed pilots’ families.

"Last year (2002), we did hold four picnics and Christmas parties to get everybody together who could make it," he says. "Not everybody came, of course. We had two in Detroit, one in Minneapolis, and one in Memphis. It was a way for everybody to get together and swap stories and experiences."

Of course, he notes, because furloughed pilots still have the same medical insurance they had when they got furloughed, they also have access to ALPA’s Aeromedical Office in Aurora, Colo., for consultation purposes.

"Every employee who has medical insurance from Northwest has one of these employee assistance programs," F/O Dyrhaug says. "It’s basically a mental health hotline that they can call, as opposed to some outside counseling agency, and through which they can get counseling over the phone or a reference to other counseling. Personally, I don’t think very many pilots search out that type of help, even if they need it. I think pilots typically try to handle things on their own."