Alaska Pilots: 
Pioneers in Aviation Safety And Security

By Tara Elkins, Communications Specialist
Air Line Pilot, September 2004, p.22

Mac McGee surely couldnít have known how big a venture he was launching when he painted "McGee Airways" on the side of his three-passenger Stinson and began flying furs, groceries, and the occasional passenger out of Anchorage, Alaska, in 1932.

Alaska Pilots at a Glance

Pilots: 1,500

Operations: 571 flights daily to 55 destinations in the United States, Canada, and Mexico

Domiciles: Anchorage, Los Angeles, and Seattle

Equipment: 109 (Boeing 737-200/400/700/900s and MD-80s)

McGee Airways eventually became Alaska Airlines, which today serves 55 destinations with 109 airliners. And not one of them is a Stinson.

Alaska has grown steadily and is now a major U.S. airline. Since 1999, the Alaska pilot group has increased from fewer than 1,000 pilots to more than 1,500. The company has expanded well beyond its traditional structure of north-south routes along the West Coast.

Alaska now serves major cities in the Midwest and on the East Coast, as well as points in Canada and Mexico. Hauling millions of passengers each year (and sometimes, still, furs, fish, and groceries), Alaska is a model for success in the airline industry.

"Many members of this pilot group have been around long enough to see our airline grow from a small carrier serving only a few cities in Alaska, Washington and California, into what it is today," says Capt. Mark Bryant, chair man of the Alaska pilotsí Master Executive Council. "I truly believe that we have become what we are because of many of those pilots and their involvement in ALPA."

Alaska Airlines has consistently been an innovator in air and ground technology, due in large part to the challenging locations its pilots fly into and out of every day. In 1989, Alaska became the first airline to use a head-up guidance system during a passenger-carrying flight to reduce fog-caused disruptions in scheduled service. In 1996, Alaska became the first airline to integrate global positioning system (GPS) navigation with the enhanced ground proximity warning system (EGWPS).

That same year, Alaska pioneered required navigational performance (RNP) approaches into Juneau, Alaska (see "Project Juneau," March 1998). RNP approaches are currently being developed for Palm Springs, Calif., San Francisco, and Washington, DCís National.

"Seeing these programs develop from an idea into a standard component of flying is pretty special," says Capt. Bryant. "This pilot group has some dedicated volunteers who have pushed hard to get safety programs implemented and standardized."

Alaska pilots have been quick to recognize important innovations and adapt them to their own unique operation. "One thing I notice about this group is that when they hear about a successful program at another airline, they jump in and make it happen here at Alaska," says Capt. Bryant.

"Two good examples," he says, "are our FOQA [Flight Operations Quality Assurance] monitoring system and our ASAP [Aviation Safety Action Program] reporting system. Although we werenít the first pilot group to implement these programs, we saw how well they worked and fought hard to get them on our property. Alaska pilots do an excellent job of getting the ball rolling and then finishing the job."

Itís not just about safety programs, either. If all goes according to plan, Alaska pilots will be the first ALPA pilot group to implement the new Cockpit Access Security System (CASS), which will enable off-line pilot jumpseaters to get back into the cockpit. After the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, the FAA restricted the use of cockpit jumpseats to on-line employees and required all off-line jumpseaters to ride in the cabin. This restriction severely limited travel options for pilots traveling off-line because cabin seats are often hard to come by these days. With the encouragement and support of both management and line pilots, Alaska picked up the ball and ran with it.

"The CASS system is a huge step for us, and will be an extremely positive program for our pilot group," says First Officer Chris Notaro, chairman of the Alaska pilotsí Jumpseat Committee. "Weíre pleased to be the first ALPA carrier to participate in the CASS program, and hope other ALPA carriers will follow suit."

And the list doesnít end there. Alaska pilots will also soon benefit from a company-wide professional standards policy, based on one originally implemented at America West. Alaskaís Critical Incident Response Team is one of the best-managed around, and the Membership Committee has streamlined its indoctrination for new pilots with a day-long presentation on ALPA programs and benefits. Each of these programs leads to a strong, unified pilot group at Alaska.

In 1976, Alaska pilots and management adopted an approach to collective bargaining that avoids the risks of a strike or lockout. When an Alaska contract becomes amendable, the parties try to reach a new agreement through direct negotiations. If no agreement is reached through traditional bargaining, unresolved issues are submitted to binding arbitration, thus avoiding the risks inherent in self-help (strike or lockout).

This process encourages the parties to find solutions through direct bargaining. In more than 30 years since this methodís inception, it has resulted in arbitration on only two occasions. In all other negotiations, full agreements were reached at the bargaining table.

Arbitration recently was a factor in the pilot groupís effort to secure a well-deserved wage increase. In 2001, Alaska was the launch customer for Boeingís 737-900. Management and ALPA tried to negotiate a rate of pay for that new equipment. When negotiations failed to produce an agreement, the issue was submitted to an arbitrator under a prior grievance settlement.

The arbitratorís award established a new, higher rate of pay for the new aircraft. This award served as a basis for further negotiations that resulted in an agreement for a substantial pay increase applicable to all equipment types flown by Alaska pilots.

"That was a win-win situation for our company and our pilot group," says Capt. Bryant. "We launched a new aircraft that helped us to expand our operation considerably, and our pilots got a pay increase. We also got a good taste of the negotiating process."

The Alaska pilot group is currently engaged in contract negotiations that will run through December 15. If no agreement is reached by that date, an arbitrator will decide the unresolved issues, with the award on wages and a limited number of work rules to be effective on May 1, 2005.

"Binding arbitration can be a double-edged sword. It puts a deadline in the process, which makes us work harder to get things done. At the same time, it limits us in a lot of ways," says Capt. Bryant. "Our goal, right now, is to negotiate an agreement that will be good for our pilots and for our company."

In the current round of negotiations, pilot pay rates and their effect on the financial state of Alaska Airlines (which is relatively good compared to many of its competitors) will be a major factor in discussions. Other issues will likely include scope (Alaska Airlines is owned by a holding company that also owns sister carrier Horizon Air), scheduling, and retirement and insurance. This is no surprise to anyone who watches the airline industry closely.

If the current negotiations produce an agreement, Alaska pilots will for the first time have an opportunity to accept or reject a contract through membership ratification. Alaska pilots previously have used membership ratification only with regard to a few side letters. All prior contracts were MEC-ratified or determined through arbitration. In 1999, the MEC mandated that all future agreements be submitted to membership ratification.

"We have seen an increase in involvement because our pilots realize that they now have the chance to vote on the contract theyíll be working under," says Capt. Bryant. "Itís exciting to be on this property now as our pilots will hopefully get their first opportunity to ratify a contract."