The Truth Is Not Enough

By Capt. Duane Woerth, ALPA President
Air Line Pilot, September 2004, p.5

As I prepared for ALPA's annual Air Safety Forum, I found myself reflecting on the birth of our union. The pilots who founded ALPA sought to address life-and-death issues the only way they could, by binding themselves together to improve a dangerous profession. They knew that only by working together could they take on the problems of "pilot pushing" and the growing number of accidents. They recognized that the solution could be found in a structure and a unified voice. They knew what we know: Safety is a labor issue.

Now, some 73 years later, ALPA’s Air Safety Structure is among the crown jewels of our Association for two powerful reasons: our unparalleled technical expertise and our collective political might. We learned long ago that knowing the truth is not enough; we must use the truth to transform reality.

The success of ALPA’s Air Safety Structure starts with our relationship with other airline industry and government stakeholders and our safety initiatives themselves. When ALPA was formed, for example, pilots and management had an "us" versus "them" mentality. But over time, especially when we made clear that we would never wave the safety flag over purely industrial issues, management and pilots were able to work together on safety issues. ALPA also built strong relationships with manufacturers, with Douglas Aircraft Company in 1948 and later with Boeing, Airbus, and others. The proof of progress came in 1995, when ALPA shared the prestigious Collier Trophy for participating on the B-777 design team.

ALPA’s success also stems from our initiatives to resolve safety issues before an accident occurs. Our mission is to save lives, not just to figure out why lives were lost, because pilots have a personal interest, as other interest groups do not. While doctors would never operate on themselves, pilots take the same risks as their passengers.

Our reputation as the foremost aviation safety organization may have grown from the credibility we’ve gained through our technical expertise, but it has flourished because of our advocacy. ALPA not only engineered safety solutions, we pressed industry, government agencies, Congress, Parliament, and the White House to make those solutions the standard. The result: during the past seven decades, the airline accident rate per year has plummeted.

Now, we must look to the future. First, we must make aviation security an equal partner with aviation safety. Security must drive aircraft design and be built into services, products, and programs, not as an afterthought, but as a guiding principle.

Another fundamental component of future aviation safety will be funding the existing commitment to modernize the National Airspace System, which we thought we had already secured. In 2000, when AIR 21 was passed, the Aviation Trust Fund had $30 billion, which could pay for necessary changes to safely increase U.S. air traffic flow.

But 9/11 changed that. The Trust Fund assets and the political will to implement National Airspace System Modernization (NASMOD) evaporated. Security necessarily became paramount. Now, the number of flights is growing and the number of passengers is climbing, but ticket prices are dropping. As a result, less money is flowing into the Trust Fund. Even as our carriers are under intensifying pressure to make money, we are experiencing increased delays, capacity problems, a stressed ATC system, and traffic volume that is rising to pre-9/11 levels in several locations.

Each of us must make clear to politicians and to the public that the airline industry fuels economic growth and that its financial viability is a direct result of safety. Even now, the industry’s contribution to the U.S. gross domestic product is $900 billion per year, a full 9 percent. More than 11 million U.S. jobs, or 7 percent, are tied to aviation. Anything that jeopardizes safety will threaten this economic impact. Once again, the truth is not enough. The truth is that NASMOD is needed now. To make NASMOD a reality will require good science, solid planning, adequate resources, and above all, political will.

As we tackle future threats to aviation safety and security, we will need to exert greater energy, hone our arguments, and display even stronger political will. Our motto, "Schedule with Safety," will never be replaced. ALPA’s role in making that motto a reality will remain our fixed objective, always.

s/Duane E. Woerth