Legislative and Political Report

ALPA Pilots Testify Before Congress on Laser Incidents

FAA Associate Administrator supports ALPA recommendations.

By Gavin Francis, Staff Writer
Air Line Pilot, May 2005, p.32-34

ALPA pilots testified on Capitol Hill in March about flight crews’ and passengers’ increasing vulnerability to laser exposure. An inordinate number of such incidents have occurred in recent months, and some of them have incapacitated cockpit crewmembers during critical phases of flight.

“Clearly, flight operations nearest to the ground, especially during approach and landing, are of greatest concern,” said Capt. Terry McVenes (US Airways), ALPA’s Executive Air Safety Chairman. “Visible laser beams have proliferated in protected airspace as a result of increased availability of low-powered laser devices on the Internet. Twenty laser events were reported between Dec. 23, 2004, and Jan. 2, 2005, and hundreds of these kinds of events have occurred over the past several years.”

Capt. McVenes appeared before the Aviation Subcommittee of the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure along with First Officer Parry Winder (Delta), who was injured by a laser illumination in the cockpit late last year. Rep. John Mica (R-Fla.), chairman of the Subcommittee, and ranking member Rep. Jerry Costello (D-Ill.) called the hearing to investigate the hazards that lasers create for pilots.

On Sept. 22, 2004, F/O Winder was flying the ILS Runway 35 approach into Salt Lake City International Airport when he and the captain noticed a bright green light illuminating the cockpit’s overhead panel for several seconds. The laser caught F/O Winder in the right eye. At the time, the aircraft was flying at an altitude of approximately 2,400 AGL.

“The intensity of the light was nearly indescribable,” F/O Winder said. “It was like looking at an arc welder without goggles.”

Other than seeing some spots, F/O Winder noticed no significant effects and was able to continue the approach, landing the airplane safely. However, he says he later realized that the laser affected his depth perception, and he flared a bit higher than normal, making a bumpier touchdown than usual. The next day, he experienced intense pain and swelling in his eyes, and was grounded for 3 weeks, during which time he received medical care for his injury.

Rep. John Duncan, Jr. (R-Tenn.) questioned F/O Winder about an article the lawmaker had read in the March issue of Air Line Pilot detailing the threat that lasers pose to airline pilots and ALPA’s recommendations to address the problem. Rep. Duncan urged close collaboration with general aviation groups on the issue, saying the problem presented serious consequences for all pilots. “I’m very concerned about the increase in these laser incidents,” he said. “We need to make sure that protections for pilots are very strong.”

The testimony before Congress by Capt. McVenes and F/O Winder is part of an ALPA effort to bring attention to the issue and push for safety enhancements designed to protect pilots from cockpit illuminations by lasers. ALPA safety representatives have worked aggressively to find a solution to the problem, collaborating with government agencies to promote amendments to FAA and FDA standards that regulate the use of lasers. ALPA’s recommendations include

Also appearing before the Committee were FAA Associate Administrator for Aviation Safety Nicholas Sabatini; Technical Director of the U.S. Air Force Rapid Capabilities Office Randall Walden; and Col. Peter Demitry, Assistant Air Force Surgeon General for Modernization. To Committee members’ questions about whether the FAA backed ALPA’s proposals on protections against lasers, Sabatini said: “I definitely would support the recommendations made by ALPA.”

In the wake of the pilots’ testimony, news media outlets across the United States picked up the story, running their comments. In addition to coverage a number of national and local newspapers, F/O Winder also appeared on ABC News, “Good Morning America,” and CNN programming to recount his experience and advocate for pilot protections against lasers.

While Capt. McVenes and F/O Winder expressed concern about recent laser incidents, both pilots also said that they believe airline travel is still very safe, indicating that it would be very unlikely that both pilots would be affected by a laser illumination. However, the potential for an intentional or unintentional incident to cause an accident or permanent injury to a pilot is substantial enough to warrant a fervent search for solutions.

“Aviation security is about more than protecting pilots and airplanes, it’s about protecting our nation,” said Capt. McVenes. “By virtue of our passion and our professionalism, pilots have an unrivaled stake in aviation safety and security issues.”

ALPA Begins Push on Pension Reform

ALPA’s president, Capt. Duane Woerth, joined Delta Air Lines Chief Executive Officer Gerry Grinstein in sending a message to lawmakers in March calling for congressional support of proposed pension legislation. Both men have been meeting with policymakers in Washington, D.C., to seek changes to existing pension laws, which place excessive funding requirements on airlines. Other airlines, such as Northwest and Continental, have joined the effort.

"We have been working hard behind the scenes to develop bipartisan support for our legislative initiatives. But none of us should be under any illusions about the difficulties we will encounter."
-- Capt. Woerth

Specifically, ALPA and the affected airlines seek to correct the funding rules of the Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974. The ERISA rules do not allow employers a sufficient amortization period for deficit-reduction payments or a realistic assumption of future interest rates. The Association has been working for months with the managements of several airlines to develop and promote pension reform legislation.

The airline industry’s financial crisis has been devastating for many pilots with defined-benefit pension plans. Extremely low interest rates, decreased values of plan assets, and burdensome funding rules have prompted many airlines to freeze, reduce, or totally eliminate defined-benefit plans. 

The ERISA rules require airlines to make excessively large payments at a time when they can least afford to, making employee pension plans too costly for some carriers to maintain, and jeopardizing the hard-earned retirement benefits of pilots.

“Hardest hit are airline pilots whose plans have been terminated just as these pilots reach mandatory retirement age,” says Capt. Woerth. “Not only will they recover just a percentage of their benefits, those benefits are also further reduced because of the age at which airline pilots are required to leave the cockpit.”

If a plan is terminated, ERISA benefit guarantees payable from the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation to pilots are actuarially reduced because they must retire at age 60 instead of the PBGC’s “normal” retirement age of 65. ALPA has been working closely with Sen. Daniel Akaka (D-Hawaii) to promote legislation to rectify this situation, changing the PBGC’s rules so that pilots retiring at age 60 would receive higher benefits calculated as though they had already reached age 65. Sen. Akaka introduced the bill, S.685, in Congress in March.

Pension reform has been a key issue for airline pilots and ALPA in recent years. In 2004, the Association successfully promoted legislation that provided a 2-year temporary relief from ERISA funding rules, but long-term reform is still necessary. In 2003, ALPA helped draft H.R.2317, the Airline Pension Act, which would have resolved the problem if it had been enacted. But Bush administration opposition prevented the bill from becoming law.

“We have been working hard behind the scenes to develop bipartisan support for our legislative initiatives,” says Capt. Woerth. “But none of us should be under any illusions about the difficulties we will encounter. It is likely that more defined-benefit plans will face termination in the future unless we can get the Bush administration and Congress all pulling on the same end of the rope."