Former Pilots' Union Chief Under Consideration to Lead FAA

Duane E. Woerth played a big role in aviation labor issues in the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and argued for the right to keep firearms in cockpits.
Duane E. Woerth played a big role in aviation labor issues in the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and argued for the right to keep firearms in cockpits. (By Al Behrman -- Associated Press)
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By Sholnn Freeman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, November 22, 2008

Labor leaders are pushing for Duane E. Woerth, a former pilots' union president who played an important role in aviation issues in the aftermath of the 2001 terrorist attacks, to lead the Federal Aviation Administration under President-elect Barack Obama.

Woerth was president of the Air Line Pilots Association, which represents most of the nation's commercial pilots, between 1999 and 2007. He was a high-profile advocate, appearing regularly before congressional committees on safety, technology and other matters.

Mostly, Woerth is credited with leading his union after the terrorist attacks roiled the industry, pitting pilots against company cost-cutters, bankruptcy lawyers and at times even the government. As the union's president, Woerth lobbied for pilots to be allowed to carry guns in the cockpit.

It isn't yet clear if Obama senior transition leaders have turned to the question of who should lead the FAA. Obama has yet to name a secretary of transportation, whose job it will be to oversee the agency.

Other potential administrators are still being discussed, including Robert Herbert, a long-time aide of Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.). Herbert, a pilot rated in civilian and military aircraft, advises Reid on transportation, defense and homeland security issues.

So far, though, it's Woerth who has set off the greatest buzz in Washington.

People close to the process on the labor side say unions consider Woerth best able to resolve the series of ongoing contract disputes between the FAA and its unions that have piled up during the Bush administration. The agency's two largest labor unions, the National Air Traffic Controllers Association and the Professional Aviation Safety Specialists, which represents technicians and safety inspectors, are battling FAA leadership over pay and work rules.

Aviation analysts said Woerth is no stranger to difficult negotiations. When air travel fell sharply in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, many airlines were forced to cut back and some filed for bankruptcy protection. Woerth found himself often on the other side of the table representing pilots.

It was a tense time and Woerth eventually came to adopt a conciliatory tone, a move that ultimately cost him his job, according to industry labor consultants who participated in the negotiations. In a reelection bid, ALPA's rank-and-file chose a rival who took a harder line against management.

"Unfortunately he was sitting in the chair when labor was forced to the table to give concessions following the events of 9/11," said William Swelbar, a research engineer at the MIT International Center for Air Transportation. "It was just an unpopular place to be."

Swelbar said Woerth's ability to understand the airlines' point of view, while advocating on behalf of the union, made him a gifted labor leader. "I think that's why you would see Duane with support on both sides of the aisle if his name were to come forward," he said.

The AFL-CIO, which counts ALPA as one of its many affiliate unions, is backing Woerth for FAA.

In 2002, Woerth argued on behalf of thousands of commercial pilots who petitioned for the right to keep firearms in their cockpits as a last line of defense against hijackers. The administration opposed the initiative but pilots eventually won the right.

Woerth, in comments at the time, noted that the government's plan to fight hijacking called for Air Force fighter jets to shoot down any passenger plane that came under terrorist control.

"In the face of such choices, we do not understand why these same government officials refuse to give pilots a last chance to prevent such a tragedy," Woerth said at the time.

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