Never Forget, Never Quit

By Capt. Duane Woerth, ALPA President
Air Line Pilot, November/December 2004, p.5

The members of ALPA’s Board of Directors assembled in Florida in October were acutely aware that our profession is at a crossroads. One path leads easily to a world of pilots undercutting each other in a race to the bottom, scrambling to hold on to an ever-diminishing piece of the pie. The other path leads through darkness and over rough road to a hard but attainable recovery.

In my report I challenged the delegates to decide—together—which road we would take. I asked whether we would remember the sources of our collective strength or throw in the towel. By the end of that important week together, we concluded that only one option is available to us. It may be the harder road to take, but it is the only one that leads to a career worth pursuing.

Fortunately, that road has trail marks left by the pioneers of our union and deepened by those who followed that path across the decades. The secret of ALPA’s success is no secret and no accident. It is the result of a well-crafted economic and political strategy born decades ago.

ALPA’s first president, Capt. Dave Behncke, was Franklin Roosevelt’s closest advisor on aviation. Behncke wooed Congress around the clock, helping to pass legislation that institutionalized our economic strategy. ALPA’s special relationship with Roosevelt led to pilot pay increases as aircraft became larger, carried more, and flew faster and farther. The piloting profession rode atop the productivity wave despite management efforts to scuttle our contract standards.

Over the decades, management shifted its methods of attack, but its goal remained the same: to split pilots from one another. Today, airline brands employ elaborate strategies to get pilots who work for separate companies to compete for work on a "lowest bid" basis. Of all the challenges vexing us in the first years of the 21st century, this may be the greatest. If we accept the status quo, the race to the bottom will continue. But if we join together, some group of pilots within one brand will develop a prototype model that stops the bleeding. If "necessity," indeed, is the mother of invention, we have all the "necessity" we need to invent that new model.

Like those who came before us, this generation will never forget and will never quit. The FedEx pilots have a steely resolve and determination to advance this profession. Comair pilots didn’t strike for three months just to wave the white flag and give it all back at the first sign of trouble. Pilots from more than a dozen airlines braved below-zero wind chills to support Mesaba pilots’ demands for a scope clause and better pay. ExpressJet pilots stuck to their principles—and concluded a breakthrough agreement with massive gains in all areas.

The fire burning inside airline pilots has not dimmed with adversity, but glows with even greater intensity. Our leather-tough pilots who have suffered deep cuts, furloughs, or bankruptcy are developing new strategies to go back on the offensive. If managements mistake these tactical retreats for surrender, they’re in for a surprise. Our confidence in the future is well founded. International traffic will grow solidly for decades. Domestic yields will recover. Ten to fifteen dollars of current crude oil prices are based on fear alone.

Our confidence is bolstered by our past. In 1928, air-mail pilot and ALPA icon Bill Hopson died because "Schedule with Safety" was just a dream. In 1931, Behncke and his "key men" formed this union in the midst of the Great Depression. Those founders knew who they were and what they stood for. They had learned through bitter experience that no airline would be loyal to them. They would always be expendable. Nearly half of those "key men" died in airplane crashes.

In the twilight of 2004, when the word "legacy" has been contorted into a slur, when carpetbagger managements squander world-class airlines, when a pilot’s worth is calculated by bean counters in pennies of unit costs, we must return to those roots—and stand shoulder to shoulder as one. We will not—cannot—fail those giants. We’re going to start right here, right now, to show the world that the 21st-century pilots of ALPA do have the right stuff and understand the power of unity. We will never forget. We will never quit.