ALPA at 90: Pilots Helping Pilots

By Christopher Freeze, Senior Aviation Technical Writer

Editor’s note: This year marks the 90th anniversary of ALPA’s founding. As “the conscience of the airline industry,” the Association has been at the forefront of advocating for safety and security advancements to protect pilots and their passengers and cargo. In each issue of Air Line Pilot, a technology or topic that the union has championed will be highlighted.

“The core of this union is helping fellow aviators who may be struggling, privately or professionally,” Capt. Joe DePete, ALPA’s president, has asserted many times. Since the Association’s founding in 1931, the ways in which ALPA has provided this assistance have evolved and grown throughout the decades.

Modest Beginnings

One of the first instances of the Association’s direct assistance to pilots came in the wake of the 1934 Long & Harmon strike (see “90 Years of Flying the Line” in the June issue). Capt. Dave Behncke, then ALPA’s president, set up a special fund to support the strikers and assured them that ALPA was using its influence to find them work during the Great Depression.

In 1951, the Association developed an internal air safety structure based on pilot-led committees and air safety representatives at each pilot group. As a result, pilot groups could focus their efforts on what they determined was in the best interest of their pilots, while having access to the Association’s national resources—first called the Human Performance Committee in 1998 and later reorganized in 2007 into the Pilot Assistance Committee, which would evolve into a key pillar of the largest nongovernmental safety organization in the world, ALPA’s Air Safety Organization (ASO).

ProStans—Resolving Conflict

In 1956, ALPA’s Board of Directors approved the Association’s Code of Ethics, which prescribes actions and attributes essential for safety that continue to be the standard of professionalism across the industry today.

Charged with protecting and enhancing the careers of ALPA pilots by promoting high ethical standards found in the Code of Ethics, the Professional Standards Committee’s (ProStans) purpose is to model ethical professional conduct, provide effective mentoring, and assist other pilots through peer mediation. “We get involved when crew resource management issues and other interpersonal conflicts occur between our own members or with other employees,” says Capt. Tom Letson (Delta), who chairs ProStans.

Aeromedical—Supporting Pilot Health

The first medical standards for airline pilots were put into effect in 1926. Because professional flying was generally seen as the purview of the young and healthy, there was little need to advocate for aeromedical matters outside of supporting labor contracts.

However, as a result of the aging pilot population hired after World War II, ALPA hired its first aeromedical adviser, Dr. Richard Masters, in 1969 and opened a specialized office, the Aviation Medicine Advisory Service (AMAS), in Denver, Colo., the following year.

“In addition to AMAS, ALPA’s Aeromedical Committee representatives serve as subject-matter experts, providing information on all matters regarding airline pilots’ occupational health, including air quality and fume events, oxygen mask disinfection, and radiation and related cancers,” notes F/O Ellen Brinks (Delta), who chairs ALPA’s Aeromedical Group. The committee helps pilots deal with FAA medical certification and company medical requirements and standards for flying, coordinating with AMAS to assist pilots with any aeromedical issues. At the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, these pilots and staff were critical to providing guidance on prevention protocols and then advocating for the FAA’s quick acceptance of clinically proven vaccines for pilots once available.

HIMS—A Helping Hand

Since the inception of medical certification for pilots in the United States, regulations required that pilots have no established medical history or clinical diagnosis of substance dependence. Because a pilot’s career depends on the absence of disqualifying medical conditions, diagnosis of such a condition meant the loss of a medical certificate and, consequently, loss of livelihood. While 12-step programs like Alcoholics Anonymous were commonly used, no pilots treated for alcoholism regained their medical certificates.

In 1974, ALPA introduced the Human Intervention Motivation Study (HIMS), the first reliable, systemwide program to help airline pilots with alcohol and substance abuse problems. A joint effort with the FAA and airlines, it provides a system for identifying and treating impaired pilots and a pathway back to the flight deck. “The program requires cooperation from the company, pilot peer volunteers, health-care professionals, and FAA medical specialists to help affected pilots get the treatment and attention they need,” observes F/O Craig Ohmsieder (Spirit), the HIMS chair.

Today, most major U.S. airlines endorse the model and have HIMS-trained management and union personnel. The program has proven itself effective with a high rate of long-term alcohol abstinence, a low relapse rate, and cost-benefit analyses showing a $28 return for every $1 spent on treatment.

CIRP—A Listening Ear

In 1988, Aloha Airlines Flight 243 suffered extensive damage after an explosive decompression in flight. While then F/O Madeline “Mimi” Tompkins successfully landed the crippled B-737 aside Capt. Robert Schornstheimer, she faced post-traumatic stress disorder in the months that followed.

Realizing that there was no system in place to help her or other pilots in similar situations, Tompkins worked with Capt. Robert Sumwalt (US Airways, Ret.), and Dr. Donald Hudson, then ALPA’s aeromedical advisor, and the International Critical Incident Stress Foundation to borrow techniques from firefighters and law enforcement, adapting the existing knowledge to help airline pilots.

In 1994, ALPA formally implemented the Critical Incident Response Program (CIRP) to improve flight safety by mitigating the psychological impact of an incident or accident and aid in the normal recovery from these events before harmful stress reactions affect job performance, careers, families, and health.

“Today, pilot volunteers are specifically trained and certified to provide support in critical incident stress management,” says Capt. John McFadden (United), who chairs CIRP. “The main work of CIRP peer volunteers entails one-on-one talks and discussions, which can grow into defusings and debriefings as needed. Nearly all of ALPA’s pilot groups have adopted the program, and it’s helped many pilots return to the flight deck after an accident or incident.”

Canadian Pilot Assistance—Supporting Canadian Members

When the Canadian Air Line Pilots Association (CALPA) and ALPA merged in 1997, CALPA had a robust pilot assistance structure that became integrated into ALPA’s own program while maintaining its identity specific to the Association’s Canadian pilots.

“With the growth of ALPA through the addition of several new pilot groups from across Canada, our goal has been to make pilot assistance more available Canada-wide,” acknowledges Capt. Tom O’Toole (Jazz Aviation), ALPA’s Pilot Assistance-Canada chair. “What we really want to get across to our members is that they’re not alone. There’s always someone they can reach out to.”

While the United States and Canada have differing laws and unique concerns, a concerted effort continues to be made to harmonize CIRP and Pilot Peer Support training between the two nations.

PPS—A Shoulder to Lean On

In the wake of two disasters, the disappearance of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 in 2014 and the Germanwings Flight 9525 tragedy in March 2015, a growing public concern arose regarding mental health screening for airline pilots.

In the United States, a Pilot Fitness Aviation Rulemaking Committee (ARC) was chartered by the FAA to assess methods used to evaluate and monitor pilot mental health as well as possible barriers to reporting concerns. When the committee issued its final report in 2015, it concluded, “The best strategy for minimizing the risks related to pilot mental fitness is to create an environment that encourages and is supportive of pilot voluntary self-disclosure.” The report noted, “Early identification of mental fitness issues leads to better results.”

The committee offered recommendations including the use of pilot assistance programs, emphasizing that pilots would benefit from a “confidential, nonstigmatized, and safe environment.” The final report stated that when a culture of mutual trust and cooperation is created, pilots are less likely to conceal conditions and more likely to seek help for mental health issues.

While the Delta, FedEx Express, JetBlue, and United pilot groups had peer support programs in place to aid pilots, no national program existed until 2018, when ALPA launched the Pilot Peer Support (PPS) program under the direction of DePete, then ALPA’s first vice president and national safety coordinator, and the ASO Pilot Assistance Group’s Aeromedical Committee. A member of the Pilot Fitness ARC, DePete recognized the need for ALPA to create an Association-wide pilot support program.

Approximately 90 trained pilot volunteers who help fellow ALPA members deal with stress related to financial concerns, family or relationship problems, or any other work or personal issues are available 24/7 to listen and offer confidential, nonjudgmental support to ALPA pilots in the United States and Canada. In June 2020, the PPS program was elevated from the Pilot Assistance’s Aeromedical Group to become its own separate discipline under the Pilot Assistance structure and offers training sessions throughout the year.

“With many pilots affected by stress due to the COVID-19 pandemic and concerned about the future of the airline industry, we’ve provided whatever support resources are needed to ensure that pilots can reach out for help and receive it,” says F/O Carrie Braun (JetBlue), the PPS chair.

Pilot Assistance continues to be a core element of ALPA’s structure, evolving over the last 90 years into a vast arsenal of resources for pilots to access when needed, from assisting a pilot returning to the flight deck after an illness to supporting a pilot going through a furlough to listening to a member who’s dealing with personal or work-related issues. ALPA’s Pilot Assistance Group is always available to help.

This article was originally published in the August 2021 issue of Air Line Pilot.

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