US pilots: ‘Don’t blame us. We gave at the office.’

Pilots are worried about being blamed for the increasingly publicised airline service crisis the nation faces this summer as more flights face longer and more publicised runway delays. Air line Pilots Association president John Prater tells AB, “We’re not going to take the blame” when planes sits on runways 250px-LaGuardiaairport.jpg for hours. “We’ve pushed for air-traffic control modernisation for years and we’ll tell our story”. Pilots are on the receiving lines of passenger wrath when aircraft sit on the tarmac, and one pilot, a Comair pilot, was on the receiving end of vast amounts of publicity when a passenger on the RJ approached the cabin with a hand-held video recorder to ask about the four-hour LaGuardia delay – and then made a tape of the discussion available to the media.

Prater spoke on the sidelines of an industry luncheon in Washington, where he explained the union’s demands. He said he was not worried about possible attempts to portray pilots as greedy, and noted that airline executive compensation packages would capture as much attention as pilot pay demands. Prater, who took office in January, said that pilot profession had given back some $30 billion in concessions since 2001, and that he was not at all reluctant to seek to recoup those losses now. Prater says, “The reward for this partnership through painful times should be shared prosperity after the crisis.” Prater told the Aero Club of Washington that the 60,000-member union would encourage its local chapters to press for a maximum return but that fatigue and working hours would be as much of an issue as compensation itself. Prater adds, ”We have pilots that have reached the max. You just cannot make the number of trips that they are scheduled for and fly the maximum hours without dealing with fatigue.”
Because pilots do care about flying at least as much as they do about pay, we’re putting some key excerpts from Prater’s speech here:Prater_DSC0375.JPG

I feel profoundly optimistic today. I am more determined than ever to see this industry continue its return to financial health and for airline pilots to regain the respect and reward they earn each and every flight. The 60,000 airline pilots I represent have suffered through what were arguably the darkest economic times of the modern aviation industry, yet we have persevered. What’s more, we have endured. While we are beginning to put these times of extreme sacrifice behind us, we will not forget them.

For pilots, at least three seminal truths have characterized the years since 9/11.

The first is that we delivered when our companies needed us. After the terrorist attacks of 9/11, plummeting passenger and revenue numbers caused serious financial hardship on our airlines. That hardship was furthered by skyrocketing fuel expenses. Airline managements were forced to restructure drastically, both inside and outside bankruptcy, and part of that process included asking for massive labor concessions. Management turned first to pilots, as the leaders of their airlines. And we, in turn, rallied to help save our companies.

At managements’ request, and to avoid having them abrogated by the bankruptcy courts, we consented to open our collective bargaining agreements. Under duress, we agreed to significant reductions in our pay, gave up benefits, and in some cases we even had to witness the termination of our pension plans. Since 2001, pilots have given more than $30 billion in concessions.

And, due in no small measure to pilots’ sacrifices, our airlines survived.

The reward for this partnership through painful times should be shared prosperity after the crisis. Instead, at the first whiff of economic recovery, some airline managements immediately sprang into action. Many took exorbitant raises, bonuses, and stock grants. Meanwhile, those managements continue to maintain that the same pilots and employees whose sacrifice meant their companies’ survival should continue to work for rock-bottom wages with slashed benefits. Moreover, they feel pilots should be content with meager pay raises and profit-sharing payments that only partially return lost pay.

To illustrate my point, consider a pilot at one network carrier who endured two rounds of concessions that included a 30 percent pay cut, a second pay cut of 12 percent, harsher work rules, less job security, and a terminated pension plan. In 2007, that pilot received a 1.5 percent pay raise and a profit-sharing check worth 0.4 percent of his W-2 earnings. As harsh a reality as that is, imagine that pilot’s disbelief and anger when learning that the airline’s CEO received a compensation package last year worth $40 million dollars. Horror stories also exist among the thousands of pilots flying in the US Airways family of airlines. Managers there departed the scene leaving behind the employees who struggle to take care of their families while delivering millions of their passengers safely day after day.

Pilots will never forget their sacrifice.

We also need to do more to safeguard our airliners. Our current aviation security system does not appropriately use its resources and, as a result, fails to adequately secure us. While our security net is stronger than before 9/11, the people who develop aviation security strategy remain focused on objects, not the intent of individuals.

Further, airline pilots and flight attendants, who pass extensive background and personal history checks as a condition of their employment, should be considered part of the security solution. Yet, our current system doesn’t do that. It still treats flight crews as though they pose the same threat as terrorists traveling as passengers. Consider the money and staffing that could be used more efficiently by taking thousands of airline pilots and flight attendants, about whom much is known, out of the full screening process and focusing our limited resources on the real threat.

Screeners, the individuals who are on the front lines of our security system, need to have a voice in the way that the system is run. They don’t now, and this administration is aggressively working to stop their attempts to win the right to bargain collectively—a right that all other employees, including public safety officers, have under the law.

And the yawning gap in air cargo security, which lags dangerously behind that of passenger airlines, means that we have failed to acknowledge an obvious hole in our safety and security net. Cargo airliners must be operated under the same standards as passenger operations.

My main point today is that to take on these significant challenges, the airline industry needs a new model of cooperation. We know that when pilots have partnered with airline management, aircraft designers and manufacturers, and the federal government, those partnerships have produced success.

The Federal Flight Deck Officer program stands tall as an example of ALPA’s working with government to enhance aviation security. We were the first organization to call for the creation of the program because we knew that our workplace—the flight deck—was a primary point of protection to safeguard passengers and crews. From the outset, we emphasized that the program must select, train, and deputize qualified volunteers. The foundation of the FFDO program is the quality and dedication of the pilots who serve. It provides a clear deterrent to those who seek to harm. While ALPA still sees opportunities to improve the program, its value to the security of the air transportation system is unquestioned. Today, we call upon our carriers to follow the lead of United Airlines and voluntarily install a secondary barrier to the cockpit door. It is the single cheapest and most effective way to prevent another flight deck from being taken over by a terrorist or a deranged passenger.

As we look ahead, the demand of one billion U.S. airline passengers and an equally formidable demand for cargo transport present challenges and opportunities of unprecedented proportions.

One emerging challenge is pilot training. The current regional and cargo airline expansion conflicts with the availability of pilots. Reduced pay and benefits have exacerbated the shortage. The industry is responding the wrong way, by slashing hiring standards and trying to reduce the costs of pilot training.

When I was first hired as a pilot at Continental, I had more than 5,000 hours of flight time; that’s hands-on experience. I then received two months of training as a new hire. Today, some regional airlines require as few as 200 hours of flight time for a pilot to land a job. This sends up a red flag fast for ALPA. Adding to the mix is the increasing international acceptance of multi-crew pilot licenses that seek to push real-time experience levels even lower.

The first step in addressing this shortage is to attract the best and brightest to our industry by offering appropriate wages and benefits. The 60,000 pilots of ALPA are also ready to help the FAA and airline managements refine and update training programs to position the next generation of airline pilots to carry on our union’s motto of “Schedule with Safety.”

Seventy-six years ago, ALPA was founded as part of a fight for a safer system. No other organization holds the depth and breadth of safety and security knowledge or line pilot experience. As our industry seeks to transform today’s system to meet new demands, ALPA and our pilots will be front and center. Airline pilots are the foundation of a safe, secure, and stable U.S. air transportation system. We expect and will demand at the bargaining table to be treated as such.

Now, let me tell you the truths that airline managements, aircraft developers and manufacturers, and government agencies need to know when dealing with pilots: the standards of our profession must be rebuilt.

These standards include: a level of respect for and willingness to consult with pilots; a quality of work life that contributes to safety and security; pay and benefits that recognize pilot contributions to the health and survival of our companies and industry – and ensure that the industry can attract qualified candidates to our profession.

Pilots expect a standard of pay and benefits that recognizes our role in the industry and the contribution we make to our companies. Industry financial performance has been better than predicted during our days in bankruptcy and balance sheets have been repaired faster. CEOs and upper management are readily taking their piece of the pie.

Pilot collective bargaining agreement standards likewise must be rebuilt and maintained – both for the employees who saved our companies and to ensure that standards of pay and benefits for the pilot profession will continue to attract the best job candidates. ALPA will not back away from reestablishing the contract standards that reward employees, provide you with safe and non fatigued pilots, and attract new men and women to join our ranks.

While the challenges we face as we prepare for a billion passengers are formidable, so is the power of the partnership that will result from rebuilding the standards of our profession. I am here to tell you that our industry’s pilots are ready to work with you. Now I ask each and every one of you… are you ready to work with us?

Thank you.

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2 Responses to US pilots: ‘Don’t blame us. We gave at the office.’

  1. Paul Tobias 10 January, 2010 at 6:33 pm #

    A good background check service is hard to find.

  2. Josh Maison 3 June, 2010 at 6:11 am #

    Thanks for the nice blog. I enjoy your writing. This is a complex subject matter.

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