CEO of the Cockpit #34: Ground Control to Captain Tom

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Say what you want about whether unionizing pilots is good or bad for aviation, it is an established tradition at many airlines. AVweb's CEO of the Cockpit wonders if that tradition should be established for the newest private 'space' pilot.

It is a very rare occasion when I attend an Air Line Pilots Association (ALPA) meeting. Usually, they are held at some motel meeting room hundreds of miles from my home, and it is also usually during a very nice day that could be better spent outside playing tennis.

The turmoil over potential pay cuts of up to 50 percent along with the erosion of our work rules, vacations, and lifestyle would normally be the topic of concern today at the Holiday Inn's "Magellan room." After all, as a profession, we've been facing a toilet-like downward spiral since 9/11.

After that day, every problem the airlines faced -- from corrupt management to terrible business planning -- was because airline employees were overpaid. It is amazing that all the employees of a service industry could go from being valuable assets on September 10 to being overpaid evildoers on the 12th, but apparently, everybody from the stock holders to the media believe just that.

That wasn't what this special meeting of Council 666 was called to discuss. We union members had much bigger metaphorical fish to fry. What we were going to haggle over was nothing less than Space -- "The Final Frontier."

Space flight was something left to the military and NASA ... up until recently. Then, in what could only be termed as a "bitchin' ride," Mike Melvill slipped the surleys and rode Space Ship One into space. A private venture. The very first non-government-sponsored human in space.

Two Sides to Each Pilot

Space Ship One with Extra 300

Gnarley!

As pilots, we could only applaud. As airline pilots and ALPA members, we had to address quite a few questions and issues that this first commercial space flight brought up. That is why we found ourselves drinking rancid motel coffee and sitting in plastic chairs while our fearless leader spoke.

"Brothers and Sisters of ALPA Council 666, I'd like to open this meeting and begin our discussion about the recent space flight of Mike Melvill," said Brian, our Local Executive Council (LEC) chairperson. "I know that we are all excited that an entire new environment for commercial airlines has opened up, but we need to temper our enthusiasm with sober reflection and union-like thoughts."

"What the hell is he talking about?" asked my table buddy Fred, who has flown copilot for me long enough to know that I had an answer to everything.

Hush, grasshopper ... the ALPA guy will make all things clear in just a minute. Just empty your head of rational thought and go with the flow ...

"As I was saying," continued the ALPA guy, "There are a number of very serious concerns that this space flight brings up and I think we should have many ALPA-sponsored paid trip drops and perhaps even have some sort of study committee meet in a central meeting city, say Honolulu, to study this issue and come up with recommendations for the MEC (Master Executive Council -- this group runs the airline's ALPA business).

The reason I hardly ever go to ALPA meetings -- beside the obvious reason of, "Why ruin a perfectly good day off talking with guys you just flew with?" -- was the fact that, when I do attend these meetings, I tend to talk too much. Today was no different, because I blurted out: Just what in the world are you talking about, Brian? Shouldn't we be talking about our upcoming bankruptcy instead?

"Sure, that would be the short-term view, but we ALPA leaders must look forward to the future, and the future in this case is commercial space flight. If you'll just sit still and pay attention for a few minutes, I have a really great PowerPoint presentation that will explain most everything."

"Just name one big concern," said a voice from the rear of the room. "This all sounds like Bravo-Sierra to me."

Astronauts: Pilots With More Air Below

Mike Melvill

A PowerPoint slide bearing nothing but a big red "62" appeared on the screen at the front of the room and our ALPA guy began his speech.

"There is the first big issue. This Mike Melvill is 62 years old. That is a full two years past our mandatory retirement age. How can we as a union continue to defend the age 60 rule -- a rule that infers that a pilot is too weak and feeble-minded to fly a jet after he reaches age 60 -- if a guy older than that is flying a freaking space ship?"

I had an answer for that one and, like always, I ran my mouth again: The solution to that problem, my ALPA brothers and sisters, is to continue to support the age 60 retirement rule, but to use our PAC money in Congress to pass a law making the minimum age for a commercial astronaut to be age 61.

They shouted me down, of course. Great minds are usually misunderstood. After that, the seemingly endless PowerPoint presentation continued with little interruption. Here are some of the bullet points:

  • Organizing: The first and most important thing ALPA must do with the new commercial astronaut group is to organize them into a union local and incorporate them into ALPA national. Since there is currently only one pilot in that group, organizing should be easy. A union authorization card was sent to Mike last week.

  • Pay and Benefits: In the old, government/NASA astronaut corps, we ALPA guys didn't give a rat's rump about how much they were getting paid. Now that Mike will hopefully become a member, we need to look out for his and the other commercial space pilots' pay and benefits. After all, ALPA gets a percentage cut of the package.

    Past airline pilot rates were usually based on a formula that took the aircraft's weight, speed, payload and the block time. Using the same formula for space flight should bump a space-faring ALPA member's pay right up to biblical proportions.

  • Layovers: Since, for the near future at least, there will be no layovers for our ALPA astronauts, there is probably no need for a hotel committee. Still, it would probably be prudent to form one and begin reviewing hotels in places like Las Vegas and San Diego just to be sure we're up to speed when layovers become a reality.

  • Expenses: There will be nowhere -- at first -- for the ALPA astronaut to spend meal expense money, but that is no reason not to include it in the upcoming contract. Crew meals will be a non-negotiable item.

  • Professional Standards: We will have to set up a professional standards committee for the ALPA astronauts. Since Mike Melvill will be the only member, he will have to have a stern talk with himself if he thinks he shows unprofessional conduct.

  • Strike Committee: While the labor/management atmosphere over at Space Ship One is currently congenial, we can't be lax in our strike preparations. Remember, a strong deterrent can avert a war. Because of this we will deduct five percent of Mike's salary and put it in a strike fund.

  • Scope and Merger Protection: For now, only ALPA members under contract with Space Ship One will be at the controls of the space ship. Any "commuter" or "connection" space ships will come under a separate contract.

"And one final thing that should almost go without question," said Brian:

  • The Space Ship One pilot group (Mike) will be expected to endorse John Kerry for president and boycott the usual grape growers and evil garment factory owners, and will be required to march in a parade on Labor Day with the Reverend Al Sharpton and Ted Kennedy.

Rats Scrabbling

Space Ship One Under White Knight

The PowerPoint presentation was finally over and the floor was opened for questions.

Fred's hand shot in the air and he fired the first tough, to-the-point question of the afternoon: "Do we have jump seat privileges with our new ALPA space carrier?"

"Oh my gosh, I don't know. After Mike has his first meeting with himself perhaps he can form a jump seat committee and get back to us on that one. I would think that we would have a reciprocal jump seat with him but I don't know for sure," said Brian.

Another hand shot up and a pilot at the end of our table brought up an important question: "What about security? I mean, shouldn't we get Mike enrolled in the 'pilots with guns' program? We don't want an ALPA member to go into space unarmed. This also brings up another important question. Since we're talking about space flight here, shouldn't he be armed with some sort of phaser or ray-gun? If that is true, where can he get training for that?"

"How about duty rigs?" asked another pilot from across the room. "I mean, if they eventually go into orbital airline flight, this poor guy might be on duty for hundreds of hours on end. Can we get him 'one for two' while he is on duty? If so, a two-week airline mission will reap him a big pile of money."

"These are all good questions," said our fearless leader, Brian. "We will have to form study committees for all of them. For example, how do we keep scabs from flying space ships? We all know from our aviation experience that there are people out there that say they would 'fly for free just for the experience.' We need to influence all the young, potential, space airline pilots out there to consider ALPA as a friend. Because of this, I have recommended that we all visit local elementary schools and get the kids to sign union cards."

The meeting was winding down to a close after the usual "Be it resolveds" and other official-sounding stuff. Basically, we all agreed that this new space market was something that our union should be a big part of, and we also came up with a new name for our space-flying brothers and sisters union: SLPA -- yeah, "Space Line Pilots Association" -- has a nice ring to it ...


Want to read more from AVweb's CEO of the Cockpit? Check out the rest of his columns.