Have ALPA’s Efforts Actually Threatened Advances in Aviation Safety

By Robert Mark on July 15th, 2017

It all began last month with the White House’s infrastructure plan that included severing the decades old ties between the FAA and its air traffic control system. President Trump said he supported the split, an effort that would be financed by user fees. Obviously no one, except the airlines pretty much support the effort. Then came the FAA Reauthorization bill to keep the FAA alive past September 30. The House of course thinks their version, including a privatized ATC system, is the best answer. The Senate did not agree.

Senator John Thune (R-SD)

From the Senate came John Thune’s suggestion to consider hiring pilots based on the quality of their flight experience, not simply the quantity of their logged hours, as currently demanded by the 1,500-hour rule. The result of the South Dakota Senator’s plan was a firestorm calling for everything just short of burning his likeness in effigy. Of course none of the hysterics had any resemblance with the facts. Take a look and you’ll see what the Senator actually proposed.

It amazes me that Republican, Democrat or Independent, could possibly lose by sitting down and talking about just the possibility of a more effective method of hiring the best pilots to keep the flying public safe, especially since we’ve all been living with a Congressionally mandated hiring rule that’s drastically altered the regional airline industry. How do we reconcile the fact that both sides believe they have the best interests of aviation safety on their side of the argument as ALPA explained in a recent story.

Finally there’s my friend, veteran journalist Kathryn Creedy, a seasoned journalist from South Florida, with a perspective she synthesized from months of Washington blabber about pilot hiring and aviation safety. She mentioned this story to me over lunch a few weeks ago in St. Maarten, before we took part in a journalist forum at the Caribbean Aviation Conference and I must admit, as an old-ALPA member myself I was intrigued by what she had to say.

Enough from me. Read the story we called, “Do ALPA’s Efforts Threaten Advances in Aviation Safety?” and tell us both what you think.

Rob Mark, Publisher

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“I who was raised a staunch union supporter and former union member am ashamed of the Air Line Pilots Association. I believe it has traded its credibility to achieve a financial goal, something it accuses its opponents of doing,” Kathryn Creedy

A glimmer of progress toward advancing both airline safety and addressing the abandonment of nearly 50 communities appeared recently with a bi-partisan effort to expand training options for prospective airline pilots as proposed in both the House and the Senate and was, in fact, passed by the Senate Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure as part of the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) reauthorization legislation.

“The amendment would allow prospective pilots to receive credit toward flight-hour requirements if taking structured and disciplined training courses and if completion of those training courses will enhance safety more than unstructured accumulation of flight hours,” Senator John Thune (R-SD) said.

Representative Peter DeFazio (D-OR) also addressed the issue of using flight hours as an appropriate metric for pilot skill. “There are people who have enough hours but who are incompetent,” said Representative Peter DeFazio (D-OR), in a Politico report. “So, I think, at some point, we’ve got to take a really hard look at how we are testing and quantify real capabilities in terms of flying as opposed to just hours because, you know, someone can just go up and circle around in a plane and get hours.”

DeFazio, and his colleague Representative Sam Graves (R-MO), stopped short of having Congress dictate the definition of good training and called for an FAA review of training that assures a pilot is competent beyond simply hours.

Photo by Benet Wilson

Legislators were responding to growing safety concerns raised by regional airlines and training experts such as the Flight Safety Foundation about pilot quality and training. Airline training executives say the 1500-hour rule has been an impediment to safety because pilots who graduate with 250 hours have no structured way to build the time needed to get to 1500 hours.

Over the past two years, speakers at the World Airline Training conference including those from the airline training industry and regionals report new hires require half again as much training as in the past – 15 sessions vs 10. Industry rhetoric?

Can we take the chance?

What they do to build time – traffic reporting, flight instructing, banner towing – has nothing to do with flying the line and is why they lose discipline and their skills deteriorate. Today, hundreds of would be professional pilots have dropped out, my nephew among them, because there are few flight instructors with the pilot shortage and because they can’t afford to drill holes in the sky.

Of course, the Air Line Pilots Association (ALPA) is upset with the proposed changes and has condemned them despite the fact they say nothing about changing the requirement for 1,500 hours to take the right seat of a commercial airliner. The union said it would create pilot “puppy mills.”

I find it ironic that ALPA is against the proposed legislative safety initiatives. ALPA would undoubtedly be a part of that review so what’s the problem? It participates in the Aviation Rulemaking Committee (ARC) and it is those recommendations that have gone into industry safety proposals. Is it because they were proposed by industry? Or is it because they might create more pilots?

Clearly, it sees it as the camel’s nose under the tent but I see it as a rational approach to a critical safety and service problem. Recently, Alaska-owned Horizon Air announced the cancellation of 318 flights for lack of pilots. Seaport Airlines ceased operations for lack of pilots last year.

ALPA has issued five press releases on possible changes to the 1500-hour rule this year but its first set my teeth on edge because it accused airlines and airports of being nothing but special interests in search of profits.

If industry are special interests, doesn’t that make ALPA one too? After all, isn’t that why ALPA has a Washington office? Isn’t it why it lobbies Congress and federal agencies?

Does ALPA pursue profits over safety?                     

Shrouding its money motives in the cloak of safety has done more harm than good for safety and jobs. In this case, it is the industry that cares more about safety than the pilots.

When I read ALPA’s release, and those since, I would have laughed it had the subject not been so serious. Ironically, the rule ALPA championed is a perfect example of how ALPA pursues money over safety since both pilots in the Colgan crash that prompted the rule had far more than 1,500 hours, making the adoption of an hourly metric to determine safety patently absurd. Even then NTSB Chair Deborah Hersman noted we’ve had accidents where pilots had 10s of thousands of hours and still made mistakes.

SkyWest pilot

Pilots, labor consultants and safety specialists know the rule was designed to create a pilot shortage so pilot pay would increase. interVistas Consulting’s William Swelbar first made that argument during his time at MIT researching regulatory impact on community air service. FlightPath Economics Partner Dan Akin came to the same conclusion that ALPA was out to get rid of regionals.

ALPA was highly successful since we have far fewer regionals today and new-hire salaries run between $40,000 and $65,000, not including the cost of training, tuition remission and benefits.

Many regionals invest $100,000 in new-hire bonuses, salaries and training. But many report they make that investment only to see the pilot go to a major carrier in as little as eight months prompting yet another concern.

What about the safety implications of the super rapid advancement from first officer of a regional airline to the right seat of a mainline jet? We don’t know. ALPA talks about wanting experience but says nothing about this issue. Clearly the mere fact these pilots are now working for a mainline airline does not make them magically safer or more experienced. Will it take another accident before we know those implications? I thought we rejected that philosophy in favor of using data to improve safety. Wouldn’t it be better to take a holistic approach to the problem?

So ALPA short-term politics was successful in achieving its money goals, but in the long term it has and will cost untold number of new pilot jobs. In addition, nearly 50 communities have lost air service with 200 more at risk, according to InterVistas Consulting President Deborah Meehan. That would eliminate $121 billion in economic activity for these communities. Regionals used to serve 800 communities. The number has dropped to less than 400.

ALPA says it’s an airline’s economic decision whether or not to serve a point. Airlines and airports counter saying regional operations would expand to these very airports were it not for the pilot shortage. So, in its quest to rid itself of these troublesome regionals, ALPA has stifled that expansion and jobs with its pilot shortage.

ALPA was right about pre-rule regional pay but there was more to the story and here’s where ALPA’s role in low regional pilot pay comes in. Remember, ALPA negotiated that low pay.

ALPA’s regional dues-paying members needed support from their major carrier counterparts to pressure their carriers to pay more for their regional Capacity Purchase Agreements (CPAs) so regional wages could rise. ALPA stopped short of using this holistic approach even though it knew it mattered a great deal. The union says it is not part of the CPA negotiations but it could have been had it cared enough to make the issue part of their negotiating capital. When regionals did develop better pilot contracts, airlines refused to the change the CPAs.

Many regionals, including Republic Airways and Pinnacle Airlines, went bankrupt as a result of new pilot contracts and mainline refusal to increase remuneration for their regional CPAs. Was that the idea ALPA had in the first place? What about those ALPA members who lost their jobs? Thus, my conclusion that ALPA is less about safety and more about getting rid of regionals.

I know union representation is highly complex and siloed into airlines, which sidelines such issues. But ALPA has a conflict of interest. If mainlines paid more for CPAs there would be less to increase mainline pilot pay. Ironically, ALPA always criticized the mainline carriers of racing to the bottom by hiring regionals. Well ALPA had its own race to the bottom.

Is ALPA culpable in regional accidents?

The Colgan accident was an inflection point, one in which I realized the emperor (ALPA) had no clothes. I view ALPA’s statements the same way I view presidential tweets. It makes unproven inflammatory allegations, but ignores mounting evidence that pilot quality is declining as outlined in my series for Forbes Online.

After all, both the FAA and NTSB accident investigation teams rejected arguments requiring 1500 hours to determine whether or not a pilot is safe, saying an arbitrary number is a poor metric.

The recent proposals in Congress agree and suggest we need a better metric for pilot skill than mere hours. Ironically, many of the proposals developed by the industry were recommended by the Aviation Rulemaking Committee (ARC) in which all parties come together to find safety solutions.

We never needed the 1500-hour rule

Tragically, I have watched ALPA attack the safety and training of regional pilots since the ‘80s when regionals began taking over majors’ abandoned routes. Since that time, the union has questioned the safety of regional airline pilots. Think about that. Does anyone remember a time when ALPA questioned the professionalism of an airline pilot post-accident except at the regional level?

If ALPA was so worried about safety why didn’t it create a mentorship program way back then? I know, inserting an ALPA presence on the property in however an altruistic mission would not be welcomed, but what about for those airlines where they were already on the property?

ALPA has been representing regional pilots for a couple of decades, including at least two of the airlines that had accidents. ALPA never worked with its regional pilots to teach them what the union thought they should know, according to the former ALPA MEC chair for a major regional airline. Why did it not create a professional development program…in the interest of safety, in the interest of professionalism, in the interest of the passenger? The NTSB has long favored such an approach. Professionalism, after all, is something the NTSB has constantly advocated with regional pilots. Why didn’t ALPA become part of the solution? If it had, it would have been a faster, more efficient route to improved safety than waiting for regs or legislation.

Was it because regional pilots had what it takes or was there a more nefarious reason – undermining confidence in regional airline safety and getting rid of regionals?

Was it because such a program would have given regional airline pilots an ALPA “Good Housekeeping” seal of approval thus ruining its false narrative about regional airline safety?

Taking that argument – why ALPA didn’t do more for regional pilots – to the next logical conclusion, it’s not unreasonable to say ALPA’s failure makes it culpable in the accidents that have happened. It seems having a convenient foil for its profit agenda is more important than safety. Tell that to the Colgan families. ALPA’s actions over the last 40 years concerning regionals certainly calls into question whether it’s the arbiter of aviation safety it says it is.

Case in point. One of the key issues in the Colgan crash was pilot commuting. Admittedly a can of worms, but the entire industry purposely avoided that issue. If the Colgan solutions were really about safety they would have weaved in a solution to commuting fatigue. Astonishingly, ALPA instead, blamed the pilots, saying pilots have responsibility to show up ready for work as if this were a perfect world. That’s a pretty weak argument from the passenger perspective and is certainly not in the interest of safety.

There’s no question pilots have done a lot to improve safety and their role in various safety groups cannot be discounted. But they never did it alone. The entire industry moved the needle to create the safety record we have today and it is that collegial effort that gets the job done, not the confrontational tactics ALPA deploys in using the uninformed press and Congress as a cudgel. That’s politics, not safety.

More to the point, however, using such charged language as puppy mills and special interests may make a great sound bite that resonates with a public that’s unsophisticated about aviation’s complexity, but it is not in the interest of safety. It’s insulting to ALPA’s own regional pilot corps and everyone working their tails off to provide a single level of safety. The fact is you cannot achieve a single level of safety unless you address all facets of the issue – CPAs, pay, training, training costs, experience and unions.

ALPA is using the power of the mainstream press to bully Congress and federal agencies to ignore questions raised about pilot quality and training resulting from the rule. That’s attack politics not a genuine call to safety. The NTSB and FAA throw up their hands and say it will take an act of Congress to change the rule.

During the Obama Administration sources told me the NTSB loved the idea of having a summit on the safety issues raised since the rule. However, the board demurred because the White House didn’t want to oppose ALPA ally Senator Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, who represents the Colgan families and who, in an incredible display of ignorance, championed the 1500-hour rule in the first place. The situation hasn’t changed. In response to recent visits by the industry, Schumer said he wouldn’t discuss changing the rule and closed his mind to safety data that resonates with other legislators.

Think about that – the NTSB, the real arbiter of safety in this country, is cowed into inaction by politics.

Last year I asked why NTSB is not more pro-active on this issue considering all the evidence suggesting the 1500-hour rule actually hurts pilot professionalism. NTSB’s Office of Aviation Safety Director John DeLisi responded saying the agency has seen no such evidence despite the fact it has been the subject of numerous articles and industry discussion for years.

ALPA misleadingly points to six accidents but half of them had nothing to do with pilots and one was a pair of pilots acting stupid enough to kill themselves. You can’t regulate against stupidity.

ALPA members dismiss the accident analysis because it was written by someone who once worked for a regional airline. That attitude is not in the interest of safety because it rejects a data-driven approach, key to preventing accidents.

Yes, Colgan pilots were unable to cope with the roll upset, but neither were the pilots in mainline accidents before and since, such as Air France 447 that crashed into the Atlantic. Today, roll upset and stick and rudder skills training are now required, but let’s be clear, worries about automation have made it mandatory for ALL pilots, not just regional pilots. Industry proposals includes extensive Upset, Prevention & Recovery Training (UPRT), Threat and Error Management and Crew Resource Management.

But the ALPA induced pilot shortage may backfire. So many people, including Akin and Swelbar, have debunked ALPA claims that there are plenty of pilots it’s amazing that anyone believes it, but that is the power of a special interest with the mainstream press. If every pilot flying for overseas carriers were to come home it would not be enough. If we took every pilot graduating from college programs it would still not be enough.

Cowen Research just published data on the retirement rates at major carriers saying 42% of the current pilot corps will be retiring by 2026. Boeing’s forecast is a half million pilots by 2036. Source: Boeing

The fact is, if the rule were changed tomorrow it would still be three to five years before any recovery begins. The pilot pipeline has been severed and the cost of training is discouraging those who would pursue the profession. We should be addressing that cost rather than fighting about an arbitrary number of hours.

ALPA’s short-sighted strategy has created a critical pilot shortage that threatens the growth of the airline industry. All those new orders announced at the Paris Air Show? Where are we going to find the pilots to fly them?

Just looking at one aspect of ALPA actions, I’d say they’re clearly a greedy special interest.

I’m Ashamed of ALPA

I, who was raised a staunch union supporter and former union member, am ashamed of ALPA. It has traded its credibility to achieve a money goal, something it accuses its opponents of doing.

It has created an environment that stifles innovation, growth and jobs rather than encouraging it.

ALPA has attacked and denigrated its equally professional aviation colleagues who are raising safety concerns that it chooses to ignore.

It has thrown its regional members under the bus and refuses to acknowledge its own role in keeping regional pilot pay low.

It has created a second generation of lost pilots, the first lost to economic recessions, 9/11, serial airline bankruptcies and industry consolidation as so eloquently described by one of those lost pilots.

ALPA has failed to take a holistic, honest approach to critical safety issues and its false narrative about the regional airline industry has cheapened safety as an issue we should all care about.

ALPA has done nothing to bring the industry together, but fosters counterproductive oppositional politics.

It has refused to consider safe, alternative ways to train airline professionals despite the fact that the old way of training pilots is as anachronistic as vacuum tubes in air traffic control. We need new, outside-the-box thinking that embraces the Multi-Crew Pilots License, the standard set by the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO).

But ALPA doesn’t like the MPL because of it can be head with a relatively low number of flight hours and because it only trains to one airline’s standards. But pilots are slaves to seniority so why does it matter? Individual airline training for new hires takes care of that. Respected aviation safety advocate David Learmont said, however, “The guys with the white hair will never allow it.”

We’ve wasted seven years in arguing about hours when we could have been making progress in developing new pilot training methodologies that would ensure pilot professionalism and skill – improve safety – while avoiding a dilution in pilot skills and the loss of so many communities to the national air transportation system grid.

Should we accept ALPA’s manipulation as just politics – a means to an end – and dismiss it?

Not if we’re serious about aviation safety being a never-ending journey, rather than simply a goalpost.

Kathryn Creedy

 

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