Pilots union chief navigates DC turbulence

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Lee Moak is no stranger to turbulence — he’s a former Delta Airlines pilot, and he led that airline’s pilots union during its 2008 merger with Northwest Airlines. 

But Moak, who is also a retired Marine, says nothing fully prepared him for what awaited when he moved to Washington in 2011 to take the helm of the Air Line Pilots Association (ALPA) and represent all airlines’ pilots. 

“I’m not from Washington,” Moak said. “In my previous life, I was in the Marine Corps, so patience isn’t a strong suit for me. Three years in Washington, it’s amazing to me that anything gets done.”

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“I’m not into whining,” he continued. “I know that you can’t say, ‘Hey, I’m in Washington, I’m frustrated,’ because if you are, you’re never going to get anything done. The only way you get things done here is by collaboration, relationships, having a just cause, perseverance and determination.” 

Moak has been a member of the ALPA’s pilots union since 1988.  He flew Boeing 767 airplanes for Delta and served three terms as chairman of the Delta Master Executive Council, leading the airline’s pilots during a bankruptcy proceeding and the subsequent merger with Northwest.

He said his experience has made him bullish on the U.S. aviation industry, despite his uncertainty about Capitol Hill’s impact upon it. 

“We have the best educated, trained and experienced pilots in the world, and that’s why we have a safe national airspace,” Moak said. “We have great controllers, and we manufacture great airplanes.” 

But Moak said there are obstacles that are preventing U.S. airlines from fully prospering internationally. 

“What’s going on in the Middle East and in China is we’re having to compete with state-owned enterprises,” he said. “In those countries, they don’t have corporate tax; they don’t have income tax; they don’t have sequestration. They have infrastructure investment. They have a competitive mindset for their aviation industry.  

“I can’t change what they’re doing in the UAE or Qatar or Turkey, but what I can do is promote government policies in this country that are similar to what’s going on there that allow us to compete on a level playing field,” Moak continued. 

Moak said that message does not always get through clearly to lawmakers and regulators. 

“What I find in Washington is aviation is a deregulated industry, but the regulators in Washington look at aviation with a domestic regulatory mindset, when U.S. carriers are having to compete in a global economic environment,” he said. 

“Whereas they may be concerned about [air service in] Paducah, Ky.; or Cincinnati, Ohio; or Memphis, Tenn.; or Toledo over at Department of Justice or Department of Transportation, the reality is our airlines are having to compete globally. And in competing globally, they’re having to compete with these state-owned enterprises,” Moak continued. 

“What we need to focus on is, what policies can we control in our country that allow us to have a robust airline industry, which is an incredible driver of U.S. jobs at the precise moment that we need those kind of jobs.”

Moak said one example of the government having a “pro-aviation” mindset would be if the Obama administration dropped its plans to establish a preclearance facility for airline passengers in the United Arab Emirates (UAE).

The Department of Homeland Security is considering establishing a facility at the airport in the UAE’s capital city, Abu Dhabi, from which travelers flying to the U.S. could be “precleared” and treated as domestic passengers when they reach customs checkpoints after landing.

The problem is no U.S. airlines are currently offering flights to Abu Dhabi, so another country’s airline would benefit from the U.S. government’s action, Moak said.

"It's one thing to compete with a state-owned enterprise…but it's an entirely different matter to compete with a state-owned enterprise that is being subsidized by the U.S. government," he said.

Moak said the Customs and Border Patrol department's resources could be put to better use domestically.

"Coming to the U.S., we have at times, very long customs waits at JFK, at Dulles, Miami and Atlanta, and it's mainly because we don't have enough [CBP] officers to man all the stations when international flights are coming through," he said. "So it seems that it is unreasonable for the U.S. to be setting up a pre-clearance checkpoint and be using CBP assets in Abu Dhabi…when we need that personnel here in this country at this time."

Moak said he decided to run for president of the national pilots union after five years leading the Delta pilots union because “I thought I could make a difference.” 

He said his experience at Delta was night and day compared to his experience in Washington. 

“When I was at Delta, Delta was restructuring and going through a bankruptcy reorganization, and a lot of the work I was doing, I was in Manhattan,” he said. “I was dealing with bankruptcy court. I was dealing with large contracts and financing, and what I found in that world, they measure risk in nanoseconds. Their idea is, get this job done right now and move onto the next one. Everything is economically based, and people are basically unemotional, and you’re working to get the job done.” 

By contrast, Moak said effectiveness in Washington was determined by relationships.

“You compare and contrast that down here, and what you find … is you could have the worst idea in the world, and if you have the best relationships, you’ve got a 50-50 chance of getting that thing done,” he said. “If you have the best idea in the world that absolutely everybody agrees with, and you have no relationships, and you’re in Washington, you’ve got a zero chance of getting it done.” 

Even having good ideas and good relationships were no guarantees for success in the nation’s capital, he said. 

“The real kicker here is, if you have the best idea and the best relationships in the world, you probably only have a 75 percent of getting it done, not 100 percent, because there’s this community in Washington that swirls around making sure you never get anything done,” he said. “That’s what I’ve seen here.” 

But Moak said he is not ready to give up yet. 

“I still have a ton of energy,” he said.