Air Line Pilot, September 2003

President’s Forum:  Washington, D.C. Maneuvers

Some very important issues for U.S. airline pilots are currently on the docket in Congress and moving through the halls of government agencies. These issues require our attention and support. Congress will return to Capitol Hill in September and may meet only until early October. September also marks the end of the fiscal year for U.S. government agencies, and many are facing spending deficits while others are looking at their funding bills, which are still muddling through congressional committees. Some of the most important U.S. governmental programs--homeland security and airline security--are facing unbelievable budgetary problems. 

A top priority pending for many ALPA members is pension reform. At the Association’s urging, Rep. David Camp (R-Mich.), along with Reps. Jim Ramstad (R-Minn.), Earl Pomeroy (D-N.D.), Robert Matsui (D-Calif.), Gerald Kleczka (D-Wisc.), Max Sandlin (D-Texas), and John Tanner (D-Tenn.), introduced H.R. 2719, the Air Line Pension Act of 2003.

Defined-benefit plans, particularly in the U.S. passenger airline industry, are facing an unprecedented funding crisis. This already has resulted in US Airways’ terminating its pilots’ defined-benefit plan, raising fears that plans at other airlines are soon to follow. 

This crisis is not the result of employers’ failing to adequately fund their pension plans during the 1990s. Airline defined-benefit plans were well funded, or fully funded, in the years 1999 and 2000. However, by 2002, the three years of declining stock markets and record-low interest rates caused the level of funded benefits to drop at all airlines.
ALPA’s pension experts believe this pension-funding crisis is only temporary. The major airlines must marshal their liquid assets to weather the current economic crisis, to remain out of bankruptcy, and to retain a viable domestic airline industry for America.

The legislation would restore the US Airways pilots’ defined-benefit plan. Thankfully, cargo-only airlines, such as FedEx, have continued to make record profits, have demonstrated the ability to meet all their defined-benefit pension plan requirements, and thus do not need legislative relief.

Other controversial issues affecting airline pilots are still in the FAA reauthorization bill--amendments Republicans introduced late in the process would allow cargo cabotage in Anchorage and ATC privatization. Democratic legislators refused to yield on the dispute, so their opponents simply forced the FAA Reauthorization Conference report through without a single Democrat signing or agreeing to the conference report--an extremely unusual maneuver. When legislators return to the Capitol after Labor Day, the full House will consider the report. ALPA and the entire AFL-CIO Transportation Trades Department will work to remove those two provisions before a full House vote on the matter. Our success will require bipartisan support. 

FAA safety programs need increased funding in the future, but federal agencies tasked with these responsibilities are finding it difficult to manage current programs at the funding levels set for this year without drastically curtailing their activities. Security for Americans is in jeopardy while federal funding is siphoned off for other “priorities.” Our long-sought Transportation Worker Identity Card, for example, for granting access to secure airport areas, will require funding that is not on the horizon. I fear that next winter, when Congress reconvenes, our senators and representatives will discover they don’t have funds to spend on these much-needed programs. They may look for higher user fees to cover security program costs, thereby forcing airlines to raise ticket prices in a cutthroat market in which passengers fly at the lowest possible price--if they fly at all.

We have seen a disturbing trend within the TSA, as a result of budget limits, to give with one hand and to take with the other. That agency recently issued heightened alerts for terrorist activity and at the same time, in a move to reduce its spending, called for taking Federal Air Marshals off long-haul flights--thereby identifying for terrorists a “safer” target. The agency quickly recognized its folly and rescinded that order. This activity has focused attention away from major layoffs of airport screeners. While some interaction among pilots and screeners remains “testy,” no airline pilot really supports weakened airport security. 

ALPA members can help these legislative efforts by remaining vigilant and by swiftly and strongly expressing support and solidarity when called upon to act. We will continue to provide current information about these bills through our electronic communication channels and will report on results in upcoming issues of Air Line Pilot.

s/Duane E. Woerth