|FROM THE HILL|
|Legislative and Political Report|
Pilots, Politicians, and the Art of Influencing Policy
ALPA’s lobby efforts over the last 30 years
Gavin Francis, Staff Writer
Air Line Pilot, August 2004, p.32
This is the second of a two-part article highlighting efforts of ALPA’s Government Affairs Department to serve as the advocate for airline pilots on Capitol Hill after deregulation of the U.S. airline industry (see "Pilots, Politicians, and the Art of Influencing Policy," June/July).
Putting Lorenzo out of business
In 1993, Lorenzo attempted to jump back into the airline industry with a start-up carrier he called Friendship Airlines (later renamed ATX). He planned to provide discount air service between Baltimore/Washington, Boston, and Orlando. ALPA was adamantly opposed to the idea of giving Lorenzo another opportunity to once again abuse airline workers and disrupt the industry. The Association orchestrated a campaign to block his application to the U.S. Department of Transportation.
"ALPA’s Government Affairs staff immediately went to work generating congressional letters, signed by more than 200 members of the House, asking DOT Secretary Federico Peña to deny Lorenzo an operating certificate," Hallisay recalls. "We wanted to send a message that Lorenzo was no longer welcome in the airline industry."
A few years earlier, ALPA had worked closely with Rep. Douglas Bosco (D-Calif.) on a bill to ban anyone who had taken two airlines into bankruptcy from buying a third. In November 1989, the House had passed the "two-time loser" bill, but unfortunately, the Senate never considered the legislation.
ALPA had also successfully lobbied the Maryland state legislature to rescind its offer to subsidize the airline in an effort to attract business to the state. Although the state backed down from its original offer, it could not legally deny Lorenzo the right to use Baltimore/Washington International Airport if the DOT approved his plan. The letter campaign from elected members of Congress to Secretary Peña was a last-ditch effort to keep Lorenzo out of the airline business once and for all.
"The administration responded to congressional appeals by ordering an evidentiary hearing to determine Lorenzo’s fitness to operate an airline," says Hallisay. "And ALPA successfully argued before the administrative law judge, blocking his reentry into the airline industry."
Although Lorenzo has been out of the airline business for more than a decade now, even today Jerry Baker is wary of saying that ALPA has seen the last of him or his kind.
"He’s still around, you know," Baker says. "But anyone who entertains the notion of managing an airline the way he did should know that they’re going to have a fight on their hands. A lot of blood was spilled during the years that he was active in the airline industry, and others out there could do just as much damage, given half the chance."
ALPA has also had to defend against multistate income taxation of its members. Before 1979, a number of states withheld state income taxes from pilot paychecks based on their domicile, regardless of their state of residency.
"For example," says Baker, "the state of Massachusetts withheld income taxes from Boston-based airline pilots who lived in New Hampshire. Some states even tried to tax pilot wages based on time spent flying in their airspace. The most egregious example of that was Alaska, which proposed taxing pilots for the time they spent flying into and out of the state."
In 1979, ALPA lobbyists succeeded in getting an amendment attached to an aircraft noise bill on the Senate floor to block such taxation, thus settling a long-standing tax controversy in favor of airline pilots and flight attendants.
Additionally, the IRS tried to tax airline employee benefits such as airline travel passes, which commuting pilots have often used on their way to and from work.
"Every once in a while, we’d hear that the Treasury Department was going to issue regulations to tax airline passes," says Hallisay. "So we pushed Congress to make pass privileges a statutory benefit, instead of a discretionary benefit."
Numerous temporary bans on such taxation had existed, but in 1984, Congress approved legislation permanently banning taxation of most employee benefits, including travel passes for airline personnel.
And in 1995, ALPA won a long-sought victory when President Clinton signed into law a bill that prohibited states from taxing the pension income of former residents. Although the practice was not widespread, California had aggressively tried to impose this tax.
"Source taxation was fundamentally unfair," says Brendan Kenny, who joined the ALPA Government Affairs team in 1985. "It was one of the most unjust practices on the books. Winning that legislative battle was particularly rewarding."
But ALPA’s Government Affairs Department staff emphasizes that Congress could undo all the progress that the Association has made over the years if these rights are not vigilantly protected. Congress has the power to overturn previous legislation, and with 2-year office terms for representatives, the number of seats held by parties can change relatively quickly. A change in committee chairmanship can drastically alter the possibilities that any given piece of legislation has of becoming law or being blocked.
"Every time the federal budget gets out of whack, Congress looks for some way to save money," says Hardy, who came to work for ALPA just before Jerry Baker. "Taxing employee benefits is something they always talk about. And with the right combination of political factors, that tax-free status could be revoked."
Criminal penalties for FAA violations
During the Carter administration, FAA
Administrator Langhorne Bond pushed for legislation to make pilot infractions of
federal aviation regulations subject to criminal penalties
of as much as $25,000 and 1 year imprisonment.
"This harsh treatment threatened pilot job security and diminished the willingness of flightcrew members to make aviation safety reports, thus harming aviation safety," Baker says.
ALPA sought the help of Sen. Ted Kennedy (D-Mass.), chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee. He refused to hold hearings on the proposal, putting an end to the attempt to criminalize the actions of pilots who had run afoul of the federal aviation regulations.
ALPA’s lobbying efforts have also prompted a number of important safety initiatives over the last several decades. Visual approach slope indicators (VASIs), runway grooving, runway distance-to-go markers, windshear detection systems, and the traffic alert and collision avoidance system (TCAS) are all aviation safety elements that pilots have come to rely on in their day-to-day flight operations. But many of these would never have come to pass without the strong backing of the Association, which pushed steadfastly for their development and implementation.
"All of these safety initiatives require extensive research and planning by aviation safety professionals, but a directive from the Congress to secure their implementation is frequently needed," says Baker. "For this reason, ALPA’s lobbying efforts are crucial. Without political involvement, many of the government-mandated safety features of today’s airports, aircraft, and airspace simply would not exist."
ALPA also took the lead in lobbying for pilot protections against misuse and abuse of cockpit voice recorders (CVRs).
Before 1982, the National Transportation Safety Board was legally compelled to release, upon request, CVR recordings to news media and consumer groups. Because of ALPA’s efforts, releasing CVR transcripts is now prohibited until after a public hearing is held, or a majority of NTSB factual reports have been completed.
Later, ALPA successfully fought a proposal for random review of CVR recordings, fearing the practice would result in disciplinary actions against pilots. And in 1990, after a state judge released portions of a recording from an aircraft accident in which the cockpit crew made unfortunate and embarrassing comments, ALPA drafted and helped to pass legislation that placed more stringent limits on the release of CVR data and required special procedures for use of CVR recordings or transcripts during court proceedings.
Almost every aspect of the airline industry has been touched by ALPA’s efforts to improve safety and working conditions. ALPA pilots have a strong union and an able advocate in Washington through which they can voice their concerns and take part in the policy-making process. But the Association can only be effective in the legislative and regulatory arenas when it has the support of political allies who will help it attain its goals and protect its interests.
"ALPA’s lobbying efforts in Congress are substantially improved by our ability to contribute to the political campaigns of our allies through ALPA-PAC, the Association’s political action committee," says Hardy, who administers the PAC for the union. "The ability of ALPA’s Government Affairs staff to promote the Association’s legislative objectives is greatly dependent upon the support ALPA has among the 535 members of Congress."
Hallisay remembers one incident in particular that illustrates well how important ALPA-PAC has become to achieving the Association’s goals.
"Years ago, a United Airlines captain named Bud Ruddy, who was an ALPA aviation safety representative, had been trying to get the FAA to mandate runway grooving as part of the airport certification process, but wasn’t having any success. Like a lot of aviation safety guys, he didn’t immediately see the value of ALPA’s political action committee. One day he stopped by the office and handed Jerry an unsigned check for $250 as a contribution to ALPA-PAC. He said he’d come back and sign it when the runway-grooving issue was settled. In 1986, after 20 years of working on the issue, the FAA finally agreed to implement runway grooving. And sure enough, Ruddy kept his word and came back around to sign the check."
ALPA-PAC is truly one of the union’s most important tools for building congressional support, and has enabled the Association to accomplish much in the way of aviation safety and economic protections for its members.
But even now as ALPA struggles to deal with issues that affect the airline piloting profession, some members of Congress and administration officials are trying to weaken unions and undermine their ability to negotiate and enforce equitable collective bargaining contracts. Current legislative proposals for a national right-to-work law, as well as initiatives that would subject unions to anti-trust laws, threaten to do great harm to organized labor. Additionally, some are advocating revival of the Airline Labor Dispute Resolution Act, which would take away a pilot’s right to strike, depriving line pilots of their most effective protection against unfair labor practices.
"The battle is never-ending," says Baker. "We must realize that everything we’ve accomplished over the years can be taken away in short order by people who adamantly oppose the ideals on which this Association was built.
"ALPA’s political involvement is absolutely vital to protecting the job and safety of every pilot flying the line today, as well as for the future generations who will carry on the proud traditions of this noble profession."