Committee Corner
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OPSCOM: Every ALPA Pilot Group's Voice on Safety

Operations Committee

By Jan W. Steenblik, Technical Editor
Air Line Pilot,
April 2004, p.26

Whenever the airline industry is struggling financially—such as now—the concern that airline managements might cut corners on safety to save money rises anew. The central air safety chairman (CASC) of each ALPA pilot group is in the best position to know if that’s happening. As the title indicates, the CASC is the pilot who serves as the point of contact for line pilots, airline management, and the rest of ALPA concerning safety matters.

At the most recent meeting of ALPA’s Operations Committee (OPSCOM), roundtable discussion of the state of aviation safety at individual airlines was a major topic of discussion.

ALPA’s OPSCOM is a key component of the ALPA Air Safety Structure. OPSCOM’s mission is to promote safety of flight operations throughout the U.S. and Canadian airline industry by providing line pilot input into ALPA safety activities.

The OPSCOM is composed of the CASCs of each ALPA pilot group (ALPA currently represents the pilots of 42 airlines in the United States and Canada). Providing a forum for grassroots representation of safety issues into the ALPA International safety structure, the OPSCOM directly represents the safety interests of the ALPA master executive councils and their pilot members.

"During the 1980s and early 1990s, ALPA grew into an association representing more than 60,000 pilots with an ever-growing and diverse set of needs," explains Capt. Mitchell Serber (Comair), nearing the end of his second 4-year term as the OPSCOM chairman. "As a result, many ALPA MEC central air safety committees became more autonomous as they pursued their individual interests.

"In 1992, the ALPA’s Air Safety Structure leaders, seeing a need to create a forum for the CASCs to review safety issues and recommend ALPA positions and policies, created the OPSCOM," Capt. Serber continues. "The OPSCOM chairman became a standing member of the ALPA Steering and Oversight Committee (SOC), which forms and directs ALPA project teams to achieve our air safety goals.

"By creating a venue that fostered development of unified positions on issues of common interest, we acknowledged our safety structure’s deep ties to our CASC’s, our executive air safety leaders, and the synergy created by the OPSCOM. Capt. Dave Haase (TWA, now retired), the ALPA Executive Air Safety Chairman at that time, and John O’Brien, the director of ALPA’s Engineering and Air Safety Department, provided visionary leadership in creating the OPSCOM."

In 1999, the OPSCOM role was enhanced so that the group was recognized as the "customer" of the ALPA Air Safety Structure. The concept emphasized that the Association’s aviation safety mission should be guided in part by issues generated from the CASCs who bring to the table a real-time awareness of line pilots’ safety concerns. The OPSCOM now has an integral role in determining the direction of ALPA’s safety resources.

The OPSCOM meets at least twice each year and deals with agenda items that individual CASCs bring before it. Additionally, the OPSCOM has hosted guest speakers from government and industry to debate current aviation safety issues.

The OPSCOM has proven to be fertile ground, generating interest in development of ALPA’s One Level of Safety campaigns and the Critical Incident Response Program (see page 22). Most recently, ALPA’s initiative to promote aviation safety through the Safety Management System (SMS) philosophy traces its beginnings to grassroots input from a CASC to the OPSCOM.

Most of the ALPA Air Safety Structure project teams work under one of five subject-matter technical groups that mirror the structure of the International Federation of Air Line Pilots Associations and the International Civil Aviation Organization. The groups are Aircraft Design and Operations, Airport and Ground Environment, Air Traffic Services, Human Factors/Training, and Accident Analysis.

OPSCOM agenda items that are not resolved internally may be directed through the SOC to the appropriate group or project team for further action. The OPSCOM chairman is a standing member of the SOC and thus participates directly with ALPA’s executive safety leaders in promoting the Association’s safety goals.

The OPSCOM also oversees the FOQA/ASAP (Flight Operations Quality Assurance/Aviation Safety Action Partnership) Project Team and the Cargo Safety Project Team—two safety project teams that do not fall under the purview of any of the five technical groups. Capt. John Buchan (Continental) chairs the FOQA/ASAP Project Team—a major responsibility of the OPSCOM—with Capt. Don McClure (Eastern, Ret.) providing staff support. The FOQA/ASAP Project Team is the central point of contact for all ALPA pilot groups whose airlines are participating in these cooperative safety-enhancement programs.

ASAP has revolutionized the way the FAA and participating carriers deal with events that expose flight crews to potential FAA enforcement action. ASAP gathers and deidentifies event information that previously went undiscovered. "Where we once were looking at the tip of the iceberg," says Capt. Serber, "now we are able to take a look deep below the waterline." Working through a consensus model, ASAP programs are nonpunitive and emphasize understanding and solving systemic problems, thereby enhancing safety. In return for providing deidentified event reports to ASAP, pilots benefit from the educational value as well as the nonpunitive nature of the program.

FOQA focuses on deidentified flight data to bring to light safety concerns throughout the U.S. air transportation system—including aircraft operations and air traffic control. Aggregate data gathered from FOQA programs have been used successfully to resolve aircraft operational issues and ATC procedural issues.

Another benefit of FOQA is the potential savings in aircraft maintenance for participating airlines—savings significant enough to make FOQA programs financially attractive to airlines.

The ASAP/FOQA Project Team has provided invaluable help to ALPA pilot groups who have worked with their company’s management to set up ASAP on their airline. The OPSCOM believes that all ALPA pilots should be advocates of FOQA/ASAP programs. OPSCOM strongly encourages any CASC whose airline does not yet have these programs to contact the FOQA/ASAP Project Team to help them get started.

The Cargo Safety Project Team, headed by ASTAR Air Cargo CASC Capt. Ken Young, is working to achieve "One Level of Safety" for cargo operations, as ALPA did in the 1990s for FAR Part 135 passenger operations. The ALPA team was a driving force in the NTSB’s decision to hold its recently successfully completed Air Cargo Safety Forum, which Safety Board Chairman Ellen Engleman Conners announced in August 2003 at the ALPA Air Safety Forum. Many hours of work by project team volunteers, supported by ALPA staff, resulted in ALPA making a dozen presentations at the NTSB Air Cargo Safety Forum.

Any ALPA member may peruse the history of the OPSCOM’s past work by logging onto the Members Only section of the ALPA website,; clicking on "Air Safety" under "ALPA Committees" at that page; and then clicking on "Operations Committee."

Minutes from past OPSCOM meetings reveal several other recurrent themes. These include precision runway monitor approaches and simultaneous offset instrument approaches; flight/duty time (including the inadequacy of Canadian CARs regarding long-haul fatigue); long-range operations and extended twin-engine operations; the draft FAA advisory circular on fuel planning and management; upset recovery training; cockpit imaging recorders; and low-altitude turboprop operations.

Some of the interesting special issues have included inadequate MMEL protection against inoperative thrust reversers; cosmic radiation, especially regarding polar routes; a proposal (blocked by ALPA) to build a sports stadium near PHX; several problems with charting and instrument procedures—engine-out departures without DME, extended climb gradients, lack of national standards for RNP approaches, minimum vectoring altitudes for obstacle clearance, and circling approaches; APU fuel leaks on a small jet; smoke/fire/fumes procedures; problems with complying with an airworthiness directive on B-737/757 center fuel tanks; taxi incidents involving mechanics at the controls; and inconsistent/inadequate guidance for dealing with inoperative nosewheel steering.

During the OPSCOM’s recent discussion of safety at individual airlines, "basically, we surveyed every CASC at the meeting," Capt. Serber recalls. "Our initial angle was, ‘Since the FAA mandated that every airline have a director of safety, reporting directly to the CEO, has that changed at your airline? How’s your working relationship with your management’s safety structure?’

"We found some things that surprised us," he admits. "A lot of airlines are still doing it right. Some airlines are increasing their safety efforts. In most cases, we see tangible increases on the flight operations side—at both large and small airlines."

However, Capt. Serber notes, "We talked about two carriers that are in Chapter 11 [bankruptcy organization]. One is staying the course and maintaining—or improving—the status quo in safety. The other is struggling some. The ALPA representatives from that airline at the OPSCOM meeting said that the margin of safety has definitely eroded. We’re going to get an ad hoc project team to put the data together and prepare a report."

Another current issue is mixed-fleet flying. Current ALPA policy opposes it. Boeing, however, has floated proposals to establish it for some of its airplane types. "Do we have a safety issue with this?" asks Capt. Serber. "We are participating very closely in preliminary tests of one of the specific Boeing proposals. Delta is conducting trials with 40 pilots to see if mixing B-777 and B-767-400 flying is reasonable. As [Capt.] Bill Jones [Delta CASC] says, ‘Airbus has the common cockpit; Boeing is trying to build the common pilot.’ We’re keeping our eye on this. After we get the data, we’ll look at it very carefully before we develop our position on this."