Course Change

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

Pilots routinely react to changing conditions in flight--and are always prepared to make a course change to get to their destination. I believe that our union is arriving at just such a moment. The multiple concessionary agreements that many pilot groups have signed constitute an investment in our fragile industry. While we may not have seen the last of concessions, the age of givebacks is drawing to a close. Now, we must turn our attention to holding managements and other players, including the federal government, accountable for their duty to rebuild this industry. 

They're playing with our money now, and we have a right and a stake in how they use it. 

In February, the Bush administration unveiled its 2006 budget proposal. It practically shuts out the airline industry. Incredibly, the Bush administration has also launched an effort to raise per-ticket security taxes by 120 percent--adding as much as $1.5 billon annually.

Federal taxes and fees already constitute as much as 40 percent of a domestic roundtrip ticket, more than consumers pay in federal consumption taxes on alcohol, tobacco, or gasoline. No other U.S. industry subsidizes national security at this level--more than $2 billion annually. Apparently, that is not enough. The administration's proposal to raise the fee on a one-way ticket by $3 per trip leg will do real damage. 

The danger is that, once again, airline managements might fail to pass on this additional cost to consumers and turn to you and your fellow workers to play the role of sacrificial lamb. 

I personally called the CEOs of several of your companies and made clear that this is their political problem, but that we will pitch in. I represented ALPA on a coalition that included the Air Transport Association, which represents many airlines, to voice opposition to saddling our sagging industry with another $1.5 billion in taxes. Our efforts began to pay off immediately when all members--Republicans and Democrats--of the Senate Commerce Committee criticized the proposal during a recent hearing. 

The Bush administration's 2006 budget proposal also falls far short in giving the FAA the funding it needs to modernize our nation's airspace system. The U.S. economy relies on an unrivaled national air transportation system, and air transport contributes $900 billion per year to the U.S. gross domestic product. More than 11 million jobs are tied directly to this industry. 

The federal government anticipates that the number of large U.S. airports handling more than 500,000 flights per year will triple by 2025. By 2020, the Bush administration expects 18 major airports to suffer significant congestion. This will lead to more delays, reduced operations, and further revenue losses for the already burdened airlines. Your union will work with our allies in Congress to improve this proposal before it is law. And while we will work with the FAA to make the most of the FY 06 budget, the Bush administration has clearly not equipped the agency to meet the needs. 

On another front, Labor Secretary Chao has rolled out a proposal for long-term pension reform. Let me be clear about this: Proposals you may hear about do not solve airline pension funding problems. What we need instead is common-sense reform that includes reasonable funding rules and long-term amortization of funding shortfalls. 

Right now, our staff is working closely with airlines and members of Congress to put together legislation that solves the problem. I make no promises other than this: We will throw all our political weight into this fight. 

None of these battles--the tax burden, airspace modernization, pension reform--can be won without every ALPA pilot being engaged. Our problems do not lie only at the feet of government. Our managements now have billions of our dollars, and we're going to watch them closely to make sure they don't squander our investment by cutting fares again and again, handing over ticket distribution to Internet wholesalers, refusing to pass on fuel costs, and mindlessly adding capacity in each other's markets. 

That's why I am asking you to send messages to your managements--through your MECs--that you expect them to use your investments wisely. Otherwise, we will not hesitate to expose their failures for what they are. It's time to get moving. It's time to fight. It's time to rebuild this industry. 

s/Duane E. Woerth