Challenges of Representing 
Cargo Pilots Inspire Innovation


By David Berkley, ALPA Communications Supervisor
Air Line Pilot, March 2004, p.26

The ringing mobile phone on the nightstand—intentionally positioned near his head—rouses First Officer John Caputo from a fugue state of near-slumber. He picks up and says hello, an automatic reaction reinforced by countless repetitions of this drill. Hearing the voice on the other end flushes away the cobwebs in a familiar rush of lucidity.

It’s almost midnight at F/O Caputo’s home on Maryland’s Eastern Shore, but this phone call is reaching him from approximately 11 a.m. tomorrow. That’s the current time in Inchon, South Korea, where some fellow Atlas Air Cargo flightcrew members are facing a dilemma that, handled improperly, could cost them their certificates.

The vice-chairman of ALPA’s Atlas MEC, F/O Caputo knows that this phone call has set in motion a chain reaction of calls, including one from him that will similarly rouse his MEC chairman, Capt. Dave Bourne. In the 2 years that they’ve served together as MEC officers representing their air-cargo cockpit crews, Capt. Bourne and F/O Caputo have worked out a system for handling such crises—they could do it in their sleep, if they could ever get any.

Their mobile phones have become the chief instruments of union services for the Atlas flightcrew members, a necessity of representing approximately 650 crew members who reside in 47 different states, Puerto Rico, the U.K., and Sweden, who fly to all corners of the globe at all hours of day and night, and whose schedules can have them away from home for as many as 22 consecutive days each month.

"With our members so dispersed, we decided that we had to give them toll-free, 24-hour access to their union leaders, so we instituted ALPA’s first worldwide hotline using satellite connections," says Capt. Bourne. "The calls are forwarded to a mobile phone that John and I trade back and forth, so an MEC officer is always ready to take a call. It gives our members a sense of ownership of their union."

The members’ usage would suggest that it works. Since Capt. Bourne began his term as MEC chairman less than 2 years ago, he has averaged 11,000 to 12,000 minutes of mobile phone usage per month. He is now using his sixth mobile phone, having burned the circuits in its five predecessors through constant use.

As the three flightcrew members in Inchon take their turn on the hotline, F/O Caputo advises them to "sit tight" despite Dispatch’s insistence that they are legal to fly the next leg from Inchon to Los Angeles, Calif., scheduled to depart in 15 minutes. Having encountered some delays coming into South Korea, the flightcrew members are concerned that launching the next leg of their trip would put them in violation of international rest rules. However, under pressure from a major customer to get the air-cargo shipment to L.A. on time, the Dispatch and marketing staff are less concerned with the rest-hours math.

The tandem approach of Capt. Bourne and F/O Caputo to such problems is to attack the issue on parallel tracks. F/O Caputo works at the operations level, bending the ears of chief pilots, duty managers, Dispatch personnel, and the like. Meanwhile, Capt. Bourne reserves the office of the pilots’ chairman to address issues at the top echelon, speaking directly to Atlas’s Chief Executive Officer Jeff Eriksonand the airline’s Vice-President of Flight Operations and Labor Relations Jim Cato.

"Many times," F/O Caputo says, "advocacy at both levels is required. I uncover the facts and solutions while Dave gets the horsepower from the top to put the solutions into motion."

In this case, F/O Caputo works with the chief pilot in New York to determine the cockpit crew’s actual duty schedule. He discovers that the airline’s marketing department and dispatch staff flight-planned the leg 2 hours shorter than the actual flight time. He also determines that, although the flightcrew members are not legal to fly to L.A., they would be legal for the shorter flight to Anchorage, where another crew would be available to fly south. He agrees to recommend to Capt. Bourne that the crew operate to Anchorage, one of Atlas’s crew bases, where a reserve crew can pick up the trip. Capt. Bourne discusses the problem and proposed solution with Jim Cato. Shortly thereafter, the flightcrew members launch from South Korea bound for Alaska.

"The entire process delayed the shipment by a matter of only a few hours," Capt. Bourne says.

The worldwide hotline serves more than just the Atlas cockpit crews. "We have ‘family awareness’ of a different sort," says F/O Caputo. "That is, our families are aware of the SatCom [the worldwide hotline]."

Spouses didn’t hesitate to call when their pilots were flying cargo into Kuwait at the beginning of the war in Iraq, only to find that the protective "chem suits" the company had promised to provide were not available, even as the first Iraqi Scud missiles flew overhead.

"Panicked spouses were calling us, telling us we had to get the chem suits," Capt. Bourne recounts. "We made some calls and took care of it," he says. "These types of events keep our union close together, even though we’re so dispersed and diverse."

Extraordinary reliance on mobile phones is only one of many adaptations that ALPA’s leaders of cargo-carrier groups have made to confront a formidable list of unique challenges in representing and communicating with their cargo-pilot constituents. At least one of ALPA’s cargo pilot groups encounters each of these challenges:

• a widely dispersed membership, making LEC meetings, Family Awareness activities, rallies, road shows, and other events difficult to arrange;

• a lack of passenger facilities, such as ticketing areas, for staging informational picketing and leafleting efforts;

• a scarcity of news-media interest in cargo pilots’ labor-relations conflicts because a strike would not inconvenience airline passengers;

• an absence of crewroom facilities or flight "banks" for congregating pilots and facilitating Pilot-to-Pilot member relations;

• difficulty in defining and tracking "struck work";

• pilot duty schedules—sometimes consuming 18 to 22 consecutive days of a month—that make providing volunteer union work exceedingly onerous or impractical; and

• night-flying schedules that complicate attempts to work with pilots on union matters during normal business hours.

In applying creative thinking to address and overcome these challenges, ALPA’s cargo-pilot groups have pioneered approaches from which the entire Association benefits. For example, a few years ago, when F/O Caputo headed the Atlas MEC’s Communications/SPC and strike operations, he and Capt. Bourne, who was his vice-chairman at the time, introduced the use of autodialers as a way to reach each member with important messages. The MEC’s success in using these machines, which automatically dialed numbers out of a database and repeated calling attempts until a connection was made and the recorded message was delivered, prompted the pilot groups of ATA and, most recently, Mesaba to use them also. Although the Atlas group adopted the technology out of necessity to overcome the difficulties of spanning time zones and area codes with a human phone tree, the technique appealed to other groups because of its efficiency and message accuracy.

During the same contract negotiations that necessitated the use of autodialers, the Atlas group also was first to use the then-new flight-tracking software drawing from real-time ATC satellite data. The Atlas group turned to this software because the cargo carrier’s nonscheduled, constantly shifting operation precluded the traditional, "binoculars" approach—airport observation—as a reliable way to track aircraft movements. It also allowed the union to establish immediate, direct contact with crews as soon as they landed anywhere in the world. However, ALPA now considers this software application a mainstay of any strike center, for efficiently and effectively tracking aircraft movements at and beyond a strike deadline.

The cargo-pilot world is full of such pioneers. Working with ALPA’s Communications Department, the DHL (now ASTAR) MEC found creative ways to make its message matter to the news media and, more importantly, to major shipping customers during their "Quantum Leap" contract campaign of a few years ago. For years, the Polar MEC has exploited e-mail tools as a way to reach its widely dispersed members. The FedEx group is now leading the way in expanding the use of streamed media to reach members via the Internet. All of the cargo groups use conferencing and website tools to bring together their leaders, committee workers, and rank-and-file members. And working together under the auspices of ALPA’s President’s Committee for Cargo, these groups are also exploring solutions to the challenges of defining and protecting their work.

More challenges lie ahead for ALPA’s cargo-carrier units. But if history is any indication, these pilot groups will continue to develop innovative approaches to coalesce their members behind their union. Any Atlas pilot who is skeptical can simply pick up the phone from anywhere in the world and ask a union officer.