Our Union: Learning to Fly

By: Capt. Tim Canoll, ALPA President

The late rocker Tom Petty is quoted by a biographer as saying he was inspired to write his song Learning to Fly after hearing a pilot remark that “learning to fly is easy, but coming down’s the hard part.” It’s true that an airline pilot’s ability to safely land an airplane—and conduct all phases of flight—requires years of training.

ALPA members know well the continuous training that’s involved in an airline pilot career. However, the traveling and shipping public as well as government officials, regulators, and lawmakers may not fully understand the training requirements or their role in helping airline pilots to keep our skies the safest in the world.

To tell the story of what it takes to learn and maintain the skills needed to be an airline pilot, ALPA has launched a new public-awareness campaign to help remind industry influencers and the flying public the ways in which airline pilots are “Trained for Life.” The first phase of the campaign, which features radio, print, digital, and social media elements, will augment our pilot and staff lobbying and traditional and social media outreach to make clear why Washington, D.C., decision-makers should support ALPA pilots’ positions on aviation safety.

There are many new faces affecting transportation policy in Washington, D.C. For example, President Trump has nominated Republicans Gerald “Trey” Fauth and Kyle Fortson as well as former ALPA member Democrat Linda Puchala to three-year terms on the National Mediation Board. These three nominees now await Senate confirmation.

In addition, President Trump has appointed Dan Elwell, who was a captain for American Airlines, as the FAA’s deputy administrator. Recently, the U.S. Senate confirmed David Pekoske as Transportation Security Administration administrator and former ALPA member Capt. Robert Sumwalt as National Transportation Safety Board chairman.

There’s no question that airline pilots make a career-long commitment to training. It comes in many forms, from recurrent programs and check rides to the training required as new regulations are put in place––such as the training to recognize and recover from upsets and stalls that was required in the Airline Safety and FAA Extension Act of 2010.

The passage of the FAA Extension Act of 2010 drove the development of many new regulations that helped first officers to be better trained and more experienced. In the 20 years prior to this congressional action, more than 1,100 passengers lost their lives in U.S. airline accidents. Since then, that number has been reduced to zero.

Despite this progress, special interests sought in this year’s FAA reauthorization process to overturn these first officer qualification rules so that they can increase their profits. They failed because every ALPA member who walked the halls of Congress or participated in our Call to Action helped our union keep flying safe.

However, Congress did not reauthorize the FAA; lawmakers granted an extension of the existing authorization through March 30, 2018. As a result, the fight to maintain first officer training and qualifications will continue through next spring. ALPA’s Trained for Life campaign will be a major asset as we work to dispel profit-minded spin and focus on the safety facts.

Likewise, ALPA is in the midst of a similar public-awareness push in Canada. As a member of the Safer Skies Coalition, our union is calling to improve flawed flight-time/duty-time regulations that fail to harmonize Canada’s outdated pilot fatigue rules with accepted fatigue science and other countries’ regulations. Our initiative in Canada parallels ALPA’s priority of bringing all-cargo pilots under science-based flight- and duty-time regulations.

“I’m learning to fly, but I ain’t got wings” writes the legendary Petty. Our members are constantly training to fly more safely. But we do have wings—ALPA wings.