ALPA President Testifies on Aviation Industry Recovery, Role of Airline Workers

Testifying before a congressional hearing in early March, Capt. Joe DePete, ALPA’s president, said that airline pilots and frontline aviation workers are key to economic recovery.

“Since the pandemic began, airline pilots have been on the front line fighting COVID-19. We’ve kept supply chains flowing and the global economy connected,” said DePete, the only labor representative invited to testify, in his opening statement. “We’ve transported medical personnel, personal protective equipment, and life-saving vaccines, and we’ve worked to ensure that aviation can fulfill its critical role in the nation’s economic recovery once the pandemic and public-health crisis are behind us,” he said.

The congressional hearing titled “COVID-19’s Effect on U.S. Aviation and the Flight Path to Recovery” was conducted by the Aviation Subcommittee of the U.S. House of Representatives Transportation & Infrastructure (T&I) Committee and examined what the airline industry will look like post-pandemic and how best to aid in its recovery. DePete was one of the six witnesses who joined the proceedings virtually.

“Research shows that a layered public-health precaution has created very low risks of virus transmission on airplanes,” DePete went on to say. “Despite this evidence, the number of U.S. passenger flights is currently down 50 percent from pre-pandemic levels.” U.S. passenger and cargo airlines employ more than 750,000 workers, including pilots, and a significant number are confronting the strong possibility of furlough due to this reduced demand.

In his briefing, DePete commented on some of the consequences of the pandemic, including the shutdowns of Compass, ExpressJet, and Trans States—three fee-for-departure airlines with ALPA members. He highlighted the need to revisit the Chapter 11 bankruptcy process to protect collective bargaining agreements.

DePete also stressed the importance of the CARES Act’s payroll support program (PSP), which has “kept tens of thousands of aviation workers on the payroll and connected to health care.” During the Q&A session, he answered several queries about the importance of PSP, including one from Rep. Anthony Brown (D-MD). DePete responded, “If we want a rapid recovery, it’s so important that we get this [latest] installment of PSP.”

The American Rescue Plan, a $1.9 trillion stimulus package that includes PSP resources, is currently under consideration by Congress. As Air Line Pilot went to press, the previous version of PSP was scheduled to expire on March 31 and, if left unchanged, would likely trigger thousands of additional airline worker displacements.

In his written statement submitted to the Aviation Subcommittee prior to the hearing, DePete compared the PSP to the Airline Transportation Safety and Stabilization Act, which provided cash, loans, loan guarantees, and insurance to help stabilize the airline industry after the 9/11 terrorist attacks. “The law contained no employee protections, as the carriers that were able to access assistance paid off their shareholders while essentially no money flowed through to frontline employees.” He observed, “Most carriers went bankrupt in the ensuing years, with massive attendant employee harm.”

DePete highlighted the many ways that the airline industry is ensuring that air travel continues to be safe, including the use of air ventilation and filtration to create a healthy aircraft cabin environment. Environmental control systems purify airflow using hospital-grade high-efficiency particulate air (HEPA) filters, which can eliminate pathogens and help kill viruses and bacteria. Plus, aircraft outflow valves provide airplanes with fresh air every 90 seconds to two minutes.

In addition to these measures, DePete applauded the Biden administration’s mask mandate executive order and its decision to forgo unnecessary domestic testing requirements. He observed that data published by the International Air Transport Association indicated that of the 1.2 billion global airline passengers who traveled since the beginning of 2020, only 44 cases of in-flight COVID-19 transmission have been reported.

DePete concluded his remarks observing that ALPA pilots are grateful to the House T&I Committee and Aviation Subcommittee chairs for developing and acting to extend PSP. “With the hopeful trends of the virus containment and vaccine rollout and our collective work to position the pilot workforce and the airline industry for a successful rebound, we’re cautiously optimistic about recovery,” he said. “With the continued leadership of Congress, we can make certain that the United States and its passengers and cargo shippers can count on a strong pilot workforce now and in the future.”

Others testifying at the hearing were representatives from the U.S. Government Accountability Office, Airlines for America, the General Aviation Manufacturers Association, the American Association of Airport Executives, and the National Business Aviation Association.

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

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