The Courage Of Pilots

By Capt. Duane Woerth, ALPA President
Air Line Pilot, February 2005, p.5

"The truth of the matter is that you ALWAYS know the right thing to do. The hard part is doing it."--Gen. (Ret.) H. Norman Schwarzkopf

In December 2004, the ALPA family joined with the family of Capt. Patrick Leach (Mesa Air Group) in mourning his loss while serving his nation in Iraq (see "From the Front Lines," page 6). Brother Leach was doing the right thing-a very hard thing-and for it he paid the ultimate price. His courage, and the courage of many other mobilized ALPA members, is an example to us all. 

Capt. Dave Behncke, ALPA's first president, broke his leg after landing his airplane when its engines quit (see "Learning from History," page 29). But that did not deter him from climbing up Capitol Hill to continue his fight for the dignity and safety of airline pilots. His courage in that endeavor inspires us to this day. 

Courage is written in capital letters when we talk about men like Capts. Leach and Behncke. 

But courage is also written elsewhere in the airline piloting profession. It is written in the careful deliberation of pilots considering yet another agreement that would cut their pay and benefits. It is written in the faithful duty performance of pilots who have invested so much in their airline's survival. 

Courage is written in the margins of a reasoned letter to the editor of Air Line Pilot from a line pilot who has ideas for our union and the industry we have watched suffer. 

It is written in the patience exhibited by pilots who file grievances to force management to live up to the contracts they agreed to in good faith

And courage is written in the decision some pilots have made to become federal flight deck officers, pledging to do all they can to protect their aircraft from terrorists. 

The piloting profession has never been for the faint of heart. It has never been for the weak or the wallflower. It was born in danger and has dealt with challenge after challenge for decade after decade--and we have no reason to believe that will change. 

So why do we do what we do? Why do you report to work on your duty days to fly? Why do your council leaders stand up and vote their conscience during difficult circumstances? Why do your national officers accept the burden of leading the most educated, opinionated, and passionate members in the labor movement during one of the most turbulent eras in ALPA's history? 

We each have our own answer, shaped by our experiences and our personalities, but I believe that one aspect of our characters binds us together, whether we want to admit it or not. That trait is perseverance. 

We persevered to learn to fly. We persevered to get our first job. We persevered (or are persevering) to move to the left seat, to move up to the next job (or to keep this one), and to earn a fair wage. And we are all--collectively--persevering now. No matter where you are in this profession--flying short-haul cargo across Canada, hopping between Minneapolis and Duluth, or flying a B-777 from Chicago to Tokyo--perseverance counts. 

Recently, the Financial Times ran a story on the state of the airline industry. While I did not agree with every point, one passage struck me: "At the national level, however, ALPA has earned a reputation for pragmatism. Pilots lose most in a bankruptcy filing. [Capt.] Woerth has emerged as a reformer on pensions. Instead, the union is playing a longer game.... 

"Mr. Levine [a former Northwest Airlines senior vice-president of marketing and now a professor] says: '[Capt. Woerth] wants to live to fight another day. [He and the union] understand the fundamentals are on their side.'" 

Pilots live to fight another day. They persevere. We stick to the fundamentals through thick and thin. These characteristics drive our decisions in our cockpits and in our union--and are the driving force behind my presidency. 

The courage you show--no matter where you work and no matter what your stand on the issues of the day--sets a high standard that every union leader should seek to meet. 

s/Duane E. Woerth