The past two years have seen unprecedented upheaval in the airline industry. From the lockdowns and travel bans of early 2020, to the sudden spike in passenger demand this summer, and the delays and cancellations that ensued from some airlines not having kept on enough staff.
One person who was at the forefront of this crisis throughout was Captain Joe DePete, President of the Air Line Pilots Association – the largest pilots’ union in the world. Under his leadership, ALPA lobbied for greater support from Congress to support pilots during the pandemic, securing $39 billion to pay the salaries of tens of thousands of airline employees. He also worked closely with the airlines themselves, resulting in carriers such as Delta and Southwest not furloughing a single employee in 2020.
With the chaos of the last eighteen months now (hopefully) behind us, we spoke to Captain DePete about his reflections on the craziest time in air travel and what lessons can be learned. We also asked him about future threats to the airline industry: from increased investment in railways to the rise of autonomous flying drones.
Several carriers struggled with a surge in travel demand over the summer, with American Airlines, Spirit, and Southwest cancelling hundreds of flights due to staffing shortages. Are there any lessons to be learned from this crisis? What did other airlines do differently?
Many U.S. airlines experienced increased flight demand this summer and thanks to the Payroll Support Program (PSP), ALPA pilots were on the job and ready for takeoff. Throughout the pandemic, ALPA fought for passage of the PSP, not only to help save jobs, but also to position the airline industry for success once the economy started to recover and flying demand increased. And today, we are seeing the benefits of that worker-first legislation. Rather than massive layoffs, airlines were able to keep pilots on the payroll and ensure they were ready to return to flying. In fact, our pilots are more than ready.
However, everyone has to do their part. Airline training departments must manage with increased flight schedules, and we believe that most should be able to predict and respond appropriately to retraining demands. As we were throughout the pandemic, ALPA is a willing partner and we are actively working with the airlines to ensure that the investments made in our industry help fuel the economic recovery, continue to produce an adequate supply of highly-trained pilots and keep flying safe.
There’s been a lot of talk and investment recently in eVTOLs: electric Vertical Take-off and Land aircraft that don’t require pilots. Is this a cause of concern for your union, and do you believe these vehicles are a likely prospect?
ALPA is dedicated to facilitating the safe integration of new and expanding users of the national airspace system and I am proud to serve on our nation’s NextGen Advisory Committee and the Drone Advisory Committee. The collaboration by key industry stakeholders through these committees will result in a framework that will enable the U.S. to safely integrate new technology for all national airspace system (NAS) stakeholders, including aviation, commercial space, and drones. However, as the world’s largest nongovernmental aviation safety organization, ALPA believes that the single most important safety asset on a passenger or cargo airliner is an adequately rested, fully qualified, and well-trained Captain and First Officer.
The INVEST in America Act is promising unprecedented levels of investment in the nation’s railways. Do you expect this to impact air travel?
While the final details remain to negotiated, as it stands, the INVEST ACT will provide unprecedented investment in our nation’s transportation infrastructure and includes strong labor protections and Buy America rules. Passage of this bill means we are one step closer to creating and sustaining good union jobs, improving the quality of life for workers and their families, and ensuring America will remain economically competitive for years to come.
The latest report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change highlighted once again the desperate need to reduce emissions. What do you think the role of the aviation sector is in this and can pilots help to make air travel more green?
From the flightdeck, pilots see it all. We see the droughts, forest fires, and storms that are linked to climate change and as the world’s largest pilots union, ALPA has been committed to helping shape environmentally responsible and sustainable practices and policies for aviation. We take great pride in safely and efficiently transporting millions of travelers to their destinations and delivering high-value cargo around the world, every day.
Pilots play a critical role in reducing fuel consumption and CO2 emissions. In appropriate conditions, we taxi our aircraft to and from the runway without using every engine, and we reduce the use of our aircraft’s auxiliary power units while on the ground.