2005 ALPA Air Safety Forum
Opening Session
1:00 p.m. - 2:00 p.m.
Wednesday, 17 August 2005
Remarks by
Capt. Duane E. Woerth, ALPA President

The Challenges Before Us …

Good afternoon and welcome to the 51st annual ALPA Air Safety Forum. It is one of the finest privileges I have as President of ALPA to address this body each year, not just to thank you--the many volunteers who work in ALPA’s Air Safety Structure--for all the work you have done, but also to deliver a few messages directly to the folks we need to help us continue our work.

The video you have just seen speaks volumes about the work that you in the Air Safety Structure have all done over the last few years, and it lays out clearly the challenges we face in maintaining and improving our stellar safety record.

In recent weeks we have witnessed three international aircraft accidents. In the last week alone, two crashes have resulted in total fatalities. In the first of the accidents, Air France 358, in Toronto, everyone survived. But we must ask, why do we still have a deep ravine at the end of the runway, when in 1978 an Air Canada aircraft went off the runway into the same ravine, leading to two lost lives?

It was a classic reminder of what happens when known safety hazards go uncorrected. There are other known safety hazards that have yet to be corrected and one of the principle purposes of this forum is to keep public awareness on all that still needs to be done to increase the margins of safety.

The theme of this year’s Air Safety Forum is clear: Air Line Pilots: Still Strong. Still Focused. Still Safe. We have persevered through the last four difficult years--hardened by our bitter experiences, tested by a brutal economy, and toughened by a constant terror threat. You have not wavered and, as a result, this period has been the safest in airline history. For that, I salute each and every one of you here today.

Despite our record, important questions remain. First, how we will continue to stay strong?

Let’s face it: The news media love disaster, and loathe the commonplace efficiency of our air traffic system. It’s the old story, “Man bites dog” is news. “Dog bites man” is boring. As long as there are no catastrophes, it’s assumed that the universe is working on its own, naturally and as it should. But you and I know that safe flying is a modern marvel. It is not an act of nature and it is far from free. North America’s incredible safety record is, in large part, the direct result of the sweat of ALPA’s brow--hundreds of thousands of hours of technical research, accident investigation, and political strategy by line pilots over many decades.

In the recent advocacy survey we conducted with our pilots, the promotion of aviation safety remained at the top of their list of priorities, right along with enforcing pilot rights. Those rights, as a matter of fact, are often issues involving safety, such as flight time/duty time, scheduling, and morale. We need to fight for those contract rights as hard as we can, especially in the face of mid-level airline bureaucrats, such as the one who proclaimed that when a flight is under a certain distance, the pilots won’t get bottled water in the cockpit.

The advocacy survey also showed that our members believe that, of all the services their union provides, ALPA is most effective in promoting aviation safety. They understand that if pilots want their voices to be heard, they need a union the size of ALPA that can speak with one strong voice.

And that voice needs to be heard a lot farther than at our council meetings and the bargaining table. It needs to be heard in the most powerful halls in the land, in Congress and Parliament. We may wish it were not true, but safety has to be sold, because in this dog-eat-dog world, the best ideas don’t automatically win. As an example, it was only the persistence of our Government Affairs Department that pushed the next three years’ federal funding for the HIMS program through the Senate, after it failed to gain support in the House. That $500,000 will provide education and training to maintain the prevention, intervention, and treatment programs run by ALPA, the industry, and the FAA that are crucial in keeping our pilots in flying shape.

Fortunately, ALPA has the numbers to get attention, but good leadership is the force multiplier that leverages those numbers to gets things done. Strong leaders at the LEC and MEC levels are critical--and I salute those members who have run for and won these important offices. The leaders of our union have faced the last few years with steadiness and strength, and they have continued to support your work throughout. They make it possible for you, the pilot leaders within the Safety Structure, to do your work. I look forward to joining you tomorrow evening as we honor three of your own at our annual awards banquet.

Today, I challenge every ALPA member to reflect on whether he or she has the will, the dedication, the boldness, the mettle to provide that leadership for the benefit of their union and their profession.

Leadership is not something that we are born with or take a pill for. Leaders are plain folks like the rest of us. The only difference is that they understand that you can’t sit back and expect someone else to do it. Any leader starts by realizing that no one cares more about fixing your problems than you.

This naturally leads to our next question: How will we find the future pilot volunteers to keep us focused on safety?

There’s no getting around it. This union was built by pilots whose first concern was staying alive. And today, our safety work still survives on volunteers who tend that flame and maintain our high safety standards. But through a combination of events, our volunteer ranks have been decimated over the last few years, and not enough new hands are there to seize the torch from the current generation.

Why is this happening? There are several reasons. First, we have a large group of pilots either retiring or preparing for retirement. That means that our once deep bench is getting thinner faster. Those pilots are taking their vast institutional memory with them. As our advocacy poll results showed us, more than half of our members have been at their current employer less than 10 years. That means that for them, 1995 is year one. There’s a deep V in the demographics of our union, and as the most senior generation exits, the demographic group of 40- to 50-year-old pilots, from which we traditionally draw our most experienced and seasoned pilot leaders, will be at its smallest percentage in decades.

But age isn’t the only factor in the lack of volunteers. There’s the stress of concessionary contracts. With ever-changing domicile assignments, shifts in routes and other factors, many more pilots commute now, eating up time that could be spent on ALPA business and isolating them geographically from their own domicile. And with so many dual-income families, some of our members are scheduled for childcare duty the minute they walk in the door after a trip. Others have been forced to find a second job.

Pilots are fatigued, pure and simple. Even so, for those willing and able, the companies they work for are stingy about letting them off trips to do the volunteer safety work. We especially appreciate the presence of you management representatives, chief pilots and training pilots at this forum, but I need to be frank with you for a moment--some of your companies or your competitors aren’t letting our volunteers off trips to do the safety work that we’re here to salute, and I am afraid that one day that’s going to catch up with all of us.

As for our future volunteers, they say the first step is to admit the problem, and I hope we can all agree that we are facing a true challenge. We must act to adjust to the new reality if we are to continue the work of this great union--of this great profession. Today, I am challenging each of you here to find new ways to reach out and inspire the 45 percent of pilots in our survey who said they were “likely to volunteer but not certain.” Find out who they are, and get to know them. Let them know we need their energy. Most important, find out what work they can do and when and how they can do it. Adjust to them and be creative.

But we don’t just need warm bodies; we need technically competent volunteers. Frankly, many pilots may be reluctant to volunteer simply because they lack the technical expertise that so many of you already possess. Please remind them that ALPA has the best training in the world, and if they have the desire, we can train them to the point of brilliance.

I also challenge you to think about whether our overall committee structure needs to be rebuilt for new times. In this world that seems to change at the speed of light, “We’ve always done it this way” no longer works as a planning mechanism. Think about what might be more effective to ensure that ALPA’s tools for guaranteeing safety and security remain at the cutting edge. Then bring your ideas into the conversation and work with ALPA staff to flesh them out and put them on the table.

Finally, and most critically, how we will continue to stay safe?

This outstanding safety record we’re so proud of is history. Our safety record starts over from scratch every day, with every preflight, every grievance, every time airline managements force pilots to ignore the tenets of a contract that is already close to minimum federal regulations.

Since 9/11, the fatigue factor, and the potential for mental errors it produces, has increased significantly, a fact that I placed squarely before a Senate committee during testimony last month. Pilots have to put up with 16-hour domestic duty days, irregular shifts, all-night operations--in short, more days and longer duty periods than we’ve seen in many years. Beyond simply enforcing the regulations that are in place, we have to move toward better standards. For example:

We must be aware of the enormous impact that Congress, the FAA, the NTSB, as well as Parliament, Transport Canada, and the Transportation Safety Board of Canada have on our careers, on safety, and on the airline business. I’d like to take a moment to recognize two members of the NTSB, Chairman Designee Ellen Engleman Conners and member Debbie Hersman. The decisions that government officials make can change the whole environment and tone of the job we do, as well as how potential passengers view the prospect of traveling by air. We have spent a tremendous amount of time building a relationship with these agencies and garnering their respect, and we can’t stop now. That respect is derived from the total professionalism that you bring to your work.

In the end, many times our advocacy is all that stands between safety and disaster. Over the course of our existence, ALPA has used persuasion, argument, connections, political savvy, pressure, public opinion, art, science, skill, and the power of its numbers to fight for the regulations and policies and resources that make the skies safe and secure for millions of passengers and the crews flying them.

Tomorrow evening, we will honor the 54th recipient of the ALPA Air Safety Award, in recognition of decades of service to this profession. Somewhere today, in some cockpit, sits a young pilot who could one day receive that same honor. But there are no guarantees that he or she will be willing, or even able, to make important contributions to our collective safety work. There are no guarantees when it comes to safety itself.

As has been the case with every generation of ALPA members, it is up to you to pass on our legacy to the next generation. It is up to you to inspire, recruit, train, and surrender control to a new generation of airline pilots. And it is up to that generation to live up to your legacy, to live up to the legacy of each generation of ALPA volunteers, and to build the strength, focus and safety of our proud profession. It is up to that generation to make our motto, “Schedule with Safety,” a continuing reality. I look forward to working with you on this most essential task.

Thank you.