ALPA's Legacy of Safety

Air Line Pilot, September 2004, p.25

The early days of the airline industry were fraught with dangers for pilots who dared to traverse the skies for a living. In fact, more than half of the Association’s founding members died in airliner crashes. Today, flying is the world’s safest mode of transportation—in no small part due to the efforts of ALPA’s Air Safety Structure and its dedicated pilot safety volunteers and staff members.

For more than 70 years, the Association has worked with government and the airline industry to improve aviation safety. ALPA members played a key role in developing the first air traffic control centers, creating the basic T instrument panel layout, developing safer procedures to carry hazardous materials aboard aircraft, creating improved emergency evacuation procedures, and launching the successful campaign for One Level of Safety. The list of ALPA’s safety accomplishments is almost endless.

The union’s Air Safety Forum is the event that has helped to bring some of these and other safety improvements to fruition over the years. In 1952, at the Association’s 12th Board of Directors meeting, union leaders overwhelmingly voted to establish an annual Air Safety Forum to bring together pilot safety representatives from every ALPA carrier, plus airline industry and government representatives, to work on finding viable operational solutions for aviation safety problems.

In April 1953 in Chicago, Ill., approximately 50 participants attended the Association’s first annual Air Safety Forum. Among the agenda topics were airplane performance standards, terrain avoidance problems, the use of radar in airline operations, aircraft exterior lighting, airport noise abatement, cockpit standardization, and accident investigation. An evening banquet featuring a guest speaker capped off the event.

ALPA’s Board of Directors, meeting in 1956, voted to establish the annual Air Safety Award, the union’s most prestigious award, for "outstanding contributions by members in the field of air safety." The award was to be presented at each Air Safety Forum. Receiving ALPA’s first Air Safety Award was Capt. Ernie Cutrell (American), to whom ALPA’s president, Capt. Clancy Sayen, presented a plaque at the 1957 Air Safety Forum for outstanding contribution to advancing aviation through his work on approach lighting.

Over the decades, ALPA’s Air Safety Forums have taken on specific themes and have grown in size and significance throughout the aviation community. Each year, the Air Safety Forum has an impressive array of participants, including ALPA leaders, Air Safety Structure volunteers, staff, and prominent individuals from government and the airline industry.

The Association’s 2003 Safety Forum was held on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., with the theme "Aviation Safety—Foundations for the Next 100 Years." More than 500 guests, including government representatives and aviation industry leaders from the United States and Canada, attended that Forum, which showcased ALPA’s aviation safety activities that have set the stage for meeting the challenges of the 21st century. The Forum was opened with remarks from U.S. FAA Administrator Marion Blakey; Transport Canada Director General of Civil Aviation Merlin Preuss; ALPA’s president, Capt. Duane Woerth; ALPA’s Executive Air Safety Chairman, Capt. John Cox; and EAS Vice-Chairman, Capt. Terry McVenes. Several ALPA-wide technical groups met during the first few days of the Forum to work on various air safety issues.

The Association’s annual safety awards banquet was held at the close of the Forum, with the 2002 Air Safety Award presented to Capt. Tom Phillips (US Airways) for his "significant contributions to flight safety while representing the best interests of airline pilots throughout the world" during his years of service as chairman of ALPA’s Accident Analysis and Aircraft Design and Operations Groups and for his leadership and expertise regarding airport rescue and firefighting, accident survival, and cabin safety.

As the Association’s leaders had envisioned 52 years ago, ALPA’s annual Air Safety Forum has succeeded in bringing pilot safety volunteers and industry and government representatives together to help advance aviation safety. Through the Association’s commitment and hard work, current-day ALPA leaders and members continue to build a legacy of safety for each new generation of airline pilots and their passengers, who gain the benefits of a safer flying environment. And the Association challenges future generations of pilots to strive to raise the safety bar even higher.