Guest Editorial: 

The Irrelevancy of ALPA in the 21st Century

 by Captain Brian Wilson

I have been an ALPA union member for ten years, having joined with an open mind.  During that ten years, I have formed my own opinions, after carefully observing ALPA in action.  I soon realized the need to understand the industry better, so I researched the history of the airlines and the union.  After much research and thought, it has become clear to me that ALPA, and indeed all AFL-CIO unions, are far more interested in acquiring and projecting political power than they are in representing the long-term best interests of their members.

ALPA, in their March 2006 magazine, tells us that the current state of the airline industry is due to management having their heads in the sand, post deregulation.  There is some truth to that - management was poorly prepared to compete in a free market environment.  Pre-deregulation, there were no incentives for management or unions to hold down costs. Both were able to simply pass along increases in operational costs, to the customers, via the Civil Aeronautics Board approval of higher ticket prices.  AFL-CIO unions could therefore indirectly determine the value of their member's services. The windfall for the national offices of these unions was millions and millions of dollars in dues, which in turn, equated to political power.

Unfortunately, post-deregulation, it is no longer the case that unions can indirectly drive customer purchasing decisions, nor that operational costs no longer matter----since the customers now have free market choice.

Due to a complex fusion of different market forces----too complex to treat here----the customer today uses price as a primary driver of purchase decisions.  That has created a downward pressure on ticket prices, while it also creates increasing pressure on airlines, to reduce their operational costs, just to remain competitive.  The arena was ripe for new, well-financed low cost carriers, entering with lower labor and maintenance costs.   With 30 years of voracious feeding at the pre-deregulation compensation trough, unions at legacy airlines suddenly found themselves priced out of the marketplace.

With that in mind, consider that AFL-CIO unions such as ALPA, continued to engage in pattern bargaining, without any regard for the ability of their companies to pass along those costs to the customers, as they did pre-deregulation.  That practice has resulted in nearly every established airline losing money, due to excessive labor costs.  In short, ALPA has refused to make the effort to understand current market trends and to embrace the new reality.  Einstein once defined insanity as doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.  ALPA fits that post-deregulation description perfectly; it continues to live in a 1976 alternate reality, trying the same obsolete approaches that have no place in the 2006 reality.  It is as much ALPA who has its head in the sand, as it is management.

ALPA National provides us with "financial experts" who inform our local leadership as to whether our companies can afford our contract demands and they were very good at it - as long as they don't have to look ahead more than one or two years. Yes, legacy airlines could afford those contracts in the heyday of the 1990s, when airline profits were at an all time high.  But ALPA National failed to review industry history.  Every business has cycles and a surface analysis of the business cycles in the airline industry, indicates the cycles are deepening; it's becoming harder for airlines to weather the down cycles. Today, there is far more competition, much more downward pressure on ticket prices, while labor costs, and direct operating costs (fuel and parts), are higher.  The result is longer recessions in the industry, followed by shallower recoveries, before the next downturn.  But ALPA seems oblivious to the elementary business principles learned in Management 101.  ALPA behavior seems to prove the axiom, "The only thing you can learn from history is that no one learns from history." ALPA needs to get out from under its political myopia.

So what is a union to do to make itself more relevant in the 21st century?

First, power has to return to the rank and file.  That requires a rejection of mandatory union membership, the elimination of mandatory dues payments, and the option for the rank and file to quit their unions.  Such policy changes will make union leadership more responsive to front line members.

Second, Congress should pass legislation, which requires unions to reveal their financials, at both the national and the local level, of the bargaining unit.  How can you exercise control over your representatives, when you have no idea what they are doing with your money?  Today, union spending is a big secret to the rank and file members; there are no provisions in the ALPA constitution to hold union leadership accountable for how they spend member dues.

Third, the Railway Labor Act (RLA) and the policies of the National Mediation Board (NMB) desperately need overhauling.

We need to eliminate the power of the NMB to impose information blackouts during negotiations.  Today, with NMB complicity, unions can keep secret the exact details of the provisions they are negotiating for.  How can the rank and file know whether management or their union, has the more reasonable proposals on the table?  The answer is it can't be done - the rank and file is totally dependent on the accuracy of union leadership statements, during the progress of negotiations.  More often than not, union leadership filters such information to enhance their own political advantage.

It should be required that all activities related to negotiations, be totally transparent.  Today, unions, in the guise of "representing" the rank and file, poll their members periodically during negotiations and then keep the results of that polling secret from those whom they deign to represent - it is quite simply an abuse of their leadership provisions to do so, and is a common example of union corruption in action.

The RLA must be modified to require mandatory arbitration, if there is no contract agreement after two years of negotiating.  The contract issues would then be resolved within one year, by an independent arbitration panel, made up of industry experts drawn from labor, management, and financial institutions.  Such mandatory arbitration would eliminate the need for unions to go on strike, so the revised law should outlaw strikes too. The airline industry is such an important part of the national infrastructure, that union activists should not be allowed to shut it down, or even to slow it down, as did the American Airline pilots in 1999.

Finally there must be a fundamental cultural change in unionism in general and for ALPA in particular.  The marketplace of today will no longer tolerate automatic, knee-jerk opposition to all things management.  It also will not tolerate political and financial polices put into place, in a state of ignorance of the market forces in play.  ALPA must begin to truly represent and educate the rank and file member.  To this end, leadership needs to embrace a role of information facilitators - allowing rank and file members access to all views and all data on a given issue.  Union leadership must then partner with management to provide forums, much like presidential political debates, where rank and file members can confront management and union leadership directly, so that the rank and file can understand and appreciate all considerations in a given issue. Only then will the rank and file be able to develop an informed, unbiased assessment of the issues at hand, and subsequently regain control over their futures.

ALPA must understand, that the days when labor cost increases can simply be passed on to the customers, are gone forever.  Today, the only way to generate the profitability required to sustain high compensation contracts over the long term, is for the union to partner with management to increase market share, via increasing efficiencies, reducing operating costs, and providing better customer service.  Pilots can no longer act merely as bus drivers - they must get out of the cockpit and into the cabins and act like businessmen and women.  To the passenger, the face of the company is the gate agent, the flight attendant and the cockpit crew.  Those employees had better put their best customer service face forward, if they want their company to retain customers and gain market share.  Pilots need to be as focused on customer relations as they are on safety.  Only then will profitability increase to the point where lucrative compensation can be sustained over the long term. 

If front line personnel don't respond to this challenge, you can bet some other airline with a more enlightened perspective, will.  And customer service expectations are so low right now, that the airline who does so, will attract a huge chunk of the customers in that marketplace.

In short, current ALPA policies are rooted in a pre-1978 world and as such are outdated and ineffective. Their policymaking has been corrupted with the political power that comes from vast sums of money, combined with little or no accountability.  Such policies are totally inappropriate for a free, capitalistic market system.  Itís time for reform, itís time for a major paradigm shift.  Only then will ALPA begin to protect the long-term best interests of their membership.

I am not hopeful, however.

Captain Brian Wilson holds an Airline Transport Pilot rating, with specific type ratings in the EMB-120 Brasila commuter turboprop, and the CL-65 Canadair Regional Jet. He has 18 years in professional aviation, including 3 years as a Flight Instructor, 4 years in corporate and freight aviation, and 11 years with regional airlines. 

Prior to his aviation career, Captain Wilson worked 5 years in retail management and before that was engaged in biomedical illustration and research work for the Department of Neurosurgery, Medical College of GA.  He is currently finishing his degree work at Embry Riddle Aeronautical University in Professional Aeronautics with minors in business management and aviation safety..

He is a 9-year instructor pilot, check airman, and Aircrew Program Designee for a major regional airline. He is currently engaged in a number of human factors and training-related projects for his company.


March, 2006

Robert J. Boser    

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The Editor of this Web Page, now retired, was an airline pilot for 33 years and holds 6 specific Captain's type-ratings on Boeing Jet Airliners.


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