53rd Annual Air Safety & Security Forum
Wednesday, August 8, 2007
Remarks by Capt. John Prater
President, Air Line Pilots Association, International
Good afternoon and welcome to the 53rd Annual Air Safety and Security Week. For those of you in the audience who are not familiar with the Air Line Pilots Association, please let me introduce myself and ALPA. My name is Capt. John Prater and I am the President of this union, which represents more than 60,000 pilots at 41 carriers in the United States and Canada. I have been involved with ALPA for 28 years, and, during that time, I’ve seen a lot.
My experience spans several eras. I flew as a single pilot during night-freight operations in WWII-era propeller airplanes, and I worked as a member of ALPA’s work group addressing the next-generation B-787. I fought against notorious airline management figures such as Frank Lorenzo, Carl Icahn, and Dick Ferris. Furloughed from Continental Airlines, I returned just three weeks prior to our bankruptcy in 1983. During the union’s 25-month strike, I was inspired to become one of the pilot group’s leaders.
I am proud to lead this Association, which is renowned for its role in shaping the safest mode of transportation on the globe. And eight months into my presidency, it is my greatest privilege to address the group assembled here today. This is an audience full of people who together have centuries of aviation experience. You are the industry’s lifeblood—the corps of dedicated pilot advocates who give both body and soul to the airline industry’s safety and security record. Without you, our Association would not have the powerful influence it wields throughout the aviation arena and beyond—from aircraft manufacturers, airline and airport managements, to legislators on Capitol and Parliament Hills, and members of the news media.
ALPA’s reputation precedes it because of our members’ dedication to safety and security and to their chosen profession. In fact, when you talk about ALPA pilots, you’re talking about the professional standard. The public trusts pilots because of our ability to perform complex tasks in environments where mistakes can cost staggering amounts of money and, more importantly, countless lives.
The flying public holds airline pilots to a “credible expert” standard. Part of that is because of our formal training and the skills we’ve developed over years of flying. Our credibility also has a lot to do with our dedication to living up to our Code of Ethics—the true defining characteristic between a “profession” and “just another job.”
Unfortunately, I think in these recent years, we’ve lost some awareness of the power, trust, and credibility that we possess. The changes in our industry over the last several years have forced many of us to feel less valued—like we are just doing a job. Today I call on that to change. It’s time to rediscover what originally inspired us to fly.
Like many people in this room, I hold a degree in a subject other than aviation. My degree happens to be in meteorology. I know that to forecast the weather you need to look at past patterns, trends, and experience. Forecasting the future of the piloting profession may be a bit more difficult, but let’s start with the same approach. Let’s start by taking a look back in time at past patterns.
Fifty-three years ago, at the second ALPA Air Safety Forum, well over 100 ALPA pilots gathered together to discuss the operational viewpoint you were bound to get from a group of men who had logged almost 800,000 flying hours. In fact, they themed that second forum “Operational Viewpoint,” because they figured that, with that type of experience in the room, you could solve just about any air safety problem imaginable. In fact, the pilots of 1954 faced many of the same obstacles we face today, including an inadequate air traffic control system, unpredictable weather, and the difficulties of properly training pilots for a new age—the Jet Age.
Managers like Juan Trippe of Pan Am and Howard Hughes of TWA had no intention of inaugurating a pilot shortage when they began buying jets in the late 1950s. But these whisper-quiet magic carpets caught on quickly with a newly affluent flying public, launching the era of glamorous travel. You can almost hear Sinatra crooning “Come Fly with Me,” in the background. The airlines hired pilots as fast as they ordered jets. And as they prepared for the jet’s introduction, ALPA pilots intended to address many issues that jets would raise.
ALPA representatives worked on pilot training issues over the next four years, building cooperation and rapport among the aviation community to arrive at reasonable training solutions. They persuaded all industry stakeholders—from government regulatory agencies to manufacturers, carriers, and management—that the basic reasons for interest in pilot training were safety and economy of operation. By the sixth Air Safety Forum held in 1958, twice the number of delegates were on hand to unveil a plan of action to address their concerns, developed by the newly-established ALPA safety structure—and with the buy-in of almost the entire airline industry.
Their plan addressed the weaknesses in the pilot training system of old, including the lack of initial hiring training; the minimal training given co-pilots; and the on-the-job training burden placed on captains. ALPA’s answer: Apply certain firm minimum requirements and essentials for both initial and recurrent pilot training programs. The Association suggested that improving safety on the flight deck required providing well trained pilot crews to alleviate on-the-job training by the captain. This model would allow a “fail safe” crew in which any pair of three equally-trained pilots could function as a complete crew in case of emergency, which would provide flexibility within the group if the captain was unable to perform.
Do you see the pattern? Visionary ALPA pilot representatives. A plan. Buy-in from major players in the industry. Improved safety for the traveling public. Fifty-three years ago, ALPA volunteers gathered together to discuss how they were going to tackle pilot training issues in the face of new technologies entering the aviation industry. Today, at the 53rd Annual Air Safety & Security Forum, with the theme of “Our View,” we’re here to share our collective aviation experience to do nearly the same thing.
Yes, it’s true. Pilot training issues are back. Of course, history never repeats with exactly the same spin. Yes, there are certain similarities. But today’s pilot training issues stem from an economic downturn in the aviation industry, not the growing wealth of opportunities provided by the introduction of the jet airliner in the late 1950s. Add to that an international pilot shortage caused by exploding air traffic growth in the Persian Gulf, China, and India; the rise of lucrative low-cost carriers in Europe and Asia; and a sustained recovery of the U.S. airlines from the 9/11 industry recession.
The aftermath of the events of 9/11 eventually forced nearly 8,000 qualified and experienced pilots into furlough, devastating the airline industry to near “melt-down” status. Those who did continue flying took major concessions, agreeing to significant pay cuts and other benefit reductions to save their airlines. This year, however, the financially-troubled U.S. airlines finally left the bankruptcy era, calling on their furloughed pilots to return to fly another day. But something was different.
When pilots got laid off in the 1970s, they came back when called. When pilots got laid off in the 1980s, they came back when called. But when bankruptcy-laden airlines tried to recall pilots in 2006 and 2007, many had moved on. In fact, at one major airline, for every seven pilots it tried to call back from furlough, only one returned to fly the line. Industry wide, about one-third of today’s furloughed pilots will return to their airline. Where are the others going?
Some have left the industry altogether, taking non-flying jobs to provide for their families as the industry’s downward spiral showed no signs of reversal. Others were lured away by other airlines, like Fed Ex, which offered better pay and job security. A few even left North America to try their luck at an enticing and growing aviation industry, with benefits, in the Persian Gulf and elsewhere. Further poaching is expected as Asian markets like China and India flourish.
As a result, airlines in the United States are attracting few experienced pilots to return from furlough or join the express-carrier ranks. The bottom line is that pilots, like other employment applicants in the current economic environment, have the luxury of being more selective in choosing a profession. The real kicker is that the new generation of pilots is doing just that.
According to research done by the Wilson Center, the new generation entered the aviation industry because it was attractive. They thought they would be entering an industry where you got paid well to travel the globe; where you got good benefits, from health care to retirement, and a convenient work schedule with lots of days off—time you could use for traveling more, or continuing an education, or even working at another part-time job, if that’s what you wanted. They even thought it would be fun! Hard to believe now.
But as they entered the ranks of express carriers, they found their own version of the “Real World.” They paid $75,000$100,000 for flight school training and a four-year college degree only to make less than $20,000 as starting pay. They did so with the belief that they would pay their dues making burger-flipper wages for a little while, but eventually they would be compensated for that sacrifice with a much higher salary.
Unfortunately, things haven’t turned out that way for many of our newest members. They have struggled along for years without much hope that the opportunity for advancement would finally come their way. They’ve picked up additional flights to make ends meet, taking away any free time for other activities. And at the end of the day, the airline job simply has not lived up to the “dream job” standards that this generation expected.
Because many of today’s young pilots start their airline careers at express carriers and work for one or more while seeking employment with a major airline, it puts express carriers into a constant hiring mode. Recently, due to the pilot demand, the hiring standards have been reduced to the FAR minimums.
Just a few years ago, express carriers were able to attract pilots even though entry-level wages were so low that they qualified for government financial assistance, and even though new-hires were required to pay thousands of dollars to cover their training costs. Now those same express carriers are paying for training costs, offering signing bonuses, and lowering the amount of logged hours required to lure in new pilots. The rush to push pilots through training and into the cockpits raises obvious safety concerns.
At some express carriers, pilots now need as few as 250 hours of flight time, the very minimum hours required to obtain a commercial pilot license, to land a job in the right seat of a fast-moving, demanding jet. Unlike in the 1960s, when new pilots entering the system came to work as flight engineers and had time to observe and learn—how crews got along, how the system works—new pilots today are going straight into the right seat, and moving into the left seat in a hurry. And they’re doing it in airplanes that are great machines, but can be unforgiving.
Furthermore, under the current training programs, these pilots receive the same training as a pilot coming into the system who has thousands of flight hours. Different training programs have to be developed for different levels of skill entering the aviation industry because many of these pilots become captains of 50-, 70-, or 90-passenger jets in little more than a year. Again, this raises real safety concerns.
There’s also another trend to point out here. Unlike the older pilots who entered the aviation industry because of their love to fly, these younger pilots entered the aviation industry with hopes for a solid, successful career. Many of them hold degrees in something other than aviation and are not reluctant to vote with their feet. When their dream career choice doesn’t live up to their standards, and other sectors of the economy offer better compensation, benefits, and career advancement, I can safely predict that many young pilots will be tempted to leave this industry—or worse yet, never entertain the idea of entering it. You will hear more on this issue during our first panel today.
ALPA ensured the traveling public’s safety during the economic booms of the 1960s by devising minimum requirements for pilot training programs, and, rest assured, we will continue to ensure the traveling public’s safety during the economic recovery process of today’s airline industry. We face the same challenge—but under very different industry conditions. Together, we will find a solution, just like those ALPA representatives who came before us.
I do want to clarify one thing, though. It’s important for all of us to remember that the young pilots entering the system are not the problem in this situation. The system itself is the problem. And if we run off the next generation of pilots coming into the system, we won’t have a profession to restore. We have to ensure the level of competency, and to do that, the next generation will need our assistance, our experience, our view—to learn and grow. Rest assured, they can—and will—be as competent as any generation of pilots.
Generational changes have other effects, too. For instance, ALPA’s future depends on recruiting a cadre of volunteers from the generation of pilots now entering the system. It will be up to us to keep our union strong by identifying and connecting with those who can benefit from “Our View,” from our life lessons—both the bumps along the way, like the issues we just discussed, to the many successes that pilots generated out of dire circumstances over the years.
As most of you know, ALPA’s motto, “Schedule with Safety,” is not a statement that we take lightly. For 76 years, ALPA has strongly emphasized and advocated for a safe and secure environment, both in the air and on the ground, that ensures the protection of our passengers, cargo, and crewmembers. Forty-six years ago, however, hijacker Ramirez Ortiz introduced a new challenge to U.S. commercial air travel—the direct human threat to safety. It prompted a string of similar events during the late 1960s, necessitating the creation of a program aimed at halting the increasing hijacker threat.
By 1970, more than 3,000 passengers had been victims of hijackings and ALPA worked diligently with the FAA, the State Department, and Congress to find the difficult solutions needed to address these concerns. In an agreement signed in October 1970 between the Departments of the Treasury and Transportation, the U.S. Customs Service was given the responsibility to establish an enforcement program aimed at eliminating this threat. The result was the creation of the Customs Air Security Officers Program, better known as the “Sky Marshal Program.” One of ALPA’s very own staff security professionals protected the airlines in that program.
Starting in late 1970, 1,784 men and women completed intense, rigorous training at a U.S. Army facility. Placed on U.S. aircraft dressed as passengers, the Customs Air Security Officers flew armed and ready to thwart an attempted hijacking at a moment’s notice. By September 11, 2001, however, the Air Marshal Program had been transferred to the FAA and whittled down to fewer than 50 armed marshals who, by statute, flew only on international flights flown by U.S. air carriers. The tragic events that unfolded that dark day demonstrated the need for an expanded law enforcement presence on board U.S. carriers on both foreign and domestic flights, and ALPA’s pilots provided the answer.
Increased security at airport checkpoints, the expansion of a better-trained and equipped cadre of federal air marshals, and hardened cockpit doors (at least for most of you!) greatly increased the protections against hijackers. But pilots demanded one additional layer of defense inside the cockpit after that dark day: lethal force to meet lethal threat. Shortly after 9/11, then-ALPA National Security Committee Chairman Capt. Steve Luckey had already drafted a proposal that would arm pilots as a last line of defense against an attack.
The Federal Flight Deck Officer Program envisioned four basic principles for pilots. First, it had to be voluntary. Second, its applicants would undergo the same screening and background checks as federal law enforcement officers. Third, the selected pilots would receive intensive training at a federal training center. And finally, successful candidates would be sworn in as federal law enforcement agents.
ALPA presented the FFDO program proposal to Congress on September 25, 2001, just two weeks after the attacks. ALPA used its reputation and influence to persuade key congressmen to include the proposal in the Homeland Security Act, and on November 26, 2002, the Act became law. It included the FFDO program implementation, which tracked exactly with the ALPA proposal. The first pilots’ training class was completed in April 2003 and additional classes have graduated weekly since that time. Today, FFDO program participants protect our skies in numbers that surpass all such government program participants, including federal air marshals.
ALPA played a key role not only in crafting a well-conceived proposal for the program, but in using our relationships with influential leaders in the airline security industry and government agencies to make the program a reality. ALPA shared one view—our unique experiences during the hijackings of the 1960s and 70s—to make the piloting profession a leader in creating security solutions. Without ALPA leadership on security issues, the national air space would not be as safe and secure as it is today.
From pilot training issues to aviation security, you are gathered here to explore the many challenges that our industry faces—challenges of the new era of flight. Another one of those challenges is “Going Green,” dealing with the environmental effect of our industry on the Earth and countering environmental taxation schemes that could harm the economic vitality of our industry. I’m sure you’ve seen and heard media coverage of the topic, not only from an aviation perspective, but from a global view. Every day, global warming and its root causes and ultimate effects fill newspapers, websites, and newscasts. The airline industry cannot avoid dealing with these challenges, especially when airlines remain primary consumers of fossil fuels.
I want to make it clear to the industry and to the government—and to our own members—that ALPA will be at the table as technological, operational, and regulatory issues are debated, developed, and endorsed. To confront this challenge, ALPA has created a new Environmental and Energy Programs working group. Its mission is to address and coordinate ALPA’s response to the effects of air transportation on local air quality, greenhouse gas levels, and noise pollution.
It is our responsibility to bring the line-pilot perspective to government agencies and industry organizations responsible for the creation and oversight of energy and environmental policies. We must act in partnership with the FAA to pursue operational, technological, and policy options for both noise and emissions reductions that satisfy safety requirements. We will explore these issues further tomorrow morning, with a panel of experts, including representatives from pilot groups in Europe, who have been addressing this issue for several years now.
Changing gears for a moment, I’d like to remind you that the ultimate safety net in our industry is the front-line employee. That’s why ALPA believes that implementing Aviation Safety Action Programs (or ASAP) at all airlines should also be one of today’s greatest initiatives. ASAP allows front-line employees to report safety concerns firsthand, without fear of management, enabling the airline industry to ensure safety while protecting those employees.
We consider ASAP and its partner program FOQA (which collects and analyzes flight data to help identify potential risk) to be standard-issue, must-have items for airline safety. Recently, ALPA’s air safety representatives met with senior FAA officials and developed new language that would improve these programs and encourage creation of additional ASAP programs at more airlines. But as of May 30, 2007, only 27 ALPA-represented pilot groups had ASAP. Six U.S. ALPA-represented pilot groups do not have ASAP—and that’s six too many. It’s time to implement both of these programs at every airline. These safety programs are the building blocks of Safety Management Systems. Accident prevention must take priority.
I want to end where I began—by saluting ALPA’s pilot representatives. All of the countless, nameless volunteers I’ve discussed today made a contribution to the safety and security of the traveling public by using their skills and expertise to: establish a plan of action during the pilot training concerns of the Jet Age; spearhead a comprehensive security program’s introduction following the dark days after 9/11; and now, tackle new challenges presented by “Going Green” in the aviation industry. In 1931, ALPA’s founding members made a total commitment to the safety of our industry. They organized pilots under ALPA with a unified voice to improve airline safety, end pilot pushing, and make their chosen profession one worth following.
Today, in an industry that’s recovering from the age of bankruptcy, we find ourselves fighting for many of the same things. As pilots, we will continue to go above and beyond our job requirements to improve airline safety and security; to end pilot pushing; and to restore our profession to one worth choosing. No one said it would be easy. But we can draw inspiration from the pilots who came before us, who shared their experiences with others to band together and tackle challenges with a unified voice.
I have no doubt that the group of ALPA pilot representatives in this room will embark upon this latest chapter with the same energy and passion as their predecessors. This generation of pilots will claim its place in history. To get there, we will have to inspire others to commit their skills and expertise. Challenge the pilots you fly with to get in the game. Encourage them to get involved. Your defining moment has arrived and history awaits your response. Let’s make the piloting profession a calling that we can all embrace, and that new generations will strive to be a part of. Thank you.