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David Behncke: Early History of the Air Line Pilots Association

[Photo: WAHF]

The early history of the Air Line Pilots Association union is closely identified with David Behncke. His early experiences as a commercial pilot inspired him to found an organization to advocate for the rights and welfare of his fellow pilots.

Born in 1897 to immigrant German parents on a farm in Wisconsin, Behncke joined the Army in 1916 and got his pilot’s wings and commission as a second lieutenant in 1917.

[Photo: WAHF]
Behncke (R) with His Parents – 1916

Following his Army service, Behncke flew around the Midwest and Great Lakes region in the 1920s with his own barnstorming outfit and participated in air races. To supplement his income, Behncke flew custom tailored suits from Chicago to customers in other cities. In this capacity, he came to the attention of Charles Dickenson, a Minneapolis businessman who had been awarded a lucrative air mail contract between Minneapolis and Chicago. Behncke became Dickenson Airlines’ first pilot in 1926. Designated Air Mail Route 9, Dickenson’s nascent operation struggled. A syndicate of Detroit and Minneapolis businessmen led by Lewis H. Brittin bought Dickenson out and renamed his airline Northwest Airways – the predecessor of Northwest Airlines. Like many other air mail carriers, Northwest moved into passenger transport and it was David Behncke who flew Northwest’s first passengers on 1 February 1927.

In the early days of commercial aviation, an airline pilot’s fortunes waxed and waned at the whim of airline owners. Before long, Behncke had changed jobs and by 1928 was flying for Boeing Air Transport out of Chicago, which later become United Airlines. It was during this transition period that Behncke starting contemplating organizing airline pilots into a union which wouldn’t be limited to one airline, but encompass pilots from other airlines, too. Flying professionally in the 1920s was still a hazardous job and, at many airlines, owners were focused on making as much money as possible with little regard for their workers. Pilots were often low paid wages for doing what could be a hazardous job.

Swallow J-5 of Varney Airlines [Photo: RuthAS]

Two factors led Behncke to move forward with his plans for a pilots’ union. The first one was the “robber baron” attitudes of the day. Even though air passengers were flying in increasing in numbers, it was the air mail contracts that made airlines money. The US Post Office paid airlines by the pound for the mail they transported, and it wasn’t unusual for airlines to mail heavy items to pad their bill and get more money from the Post Office. Many individuals who ran airlines became quite wealthy as a consequence. For an average low-paid pilot who routinely saw the things done to boost profits, it was unsettling.

Many pilots had served in the First World War and, rightly proud of their service, felt that these commercial practices were unethical. And pilots often felt unappreciated by owners; E.L. Cord, an early owner of what would became American Airlines, wasn’t shy about stating his low regard for the pilots of the airlines he owned. “Any normal person can handle an airplane” he declared in 1930. 

The practice of pilot pushing was the second factor. Even with the carriage of passengers, there was tremendous pressure on pilots to fly with poorly repaired aircraft or in unsafe weather conditions. Many airlines offered financial incentives to pilots who would take a flight that had been turned down by a fellow pilot.

With the Depression underway, there were plenty of out-of-work pilots to replace pilots who refused to fly for safety or weather reasons. in 1928, air mail pilots only had about a 25% chance of surviving several years flying the line. For many airline owners, the loss of an aircraft and pilot were easy costs to absorb given the lucrative air mail rates of the day. Behncke felt the financial incentives to fly in unsafe conditions were the worst evil of the profession.

In 1928, while still working for what became United Airlines, Behncke was elected to an executive position within National Air Pilots Association (NAPA), a social organization of pilots. He urged the organization to take a vocal stand against pilot pushing by adopting the slogan “Don’t overfly a brother pilot!”. Unfortunately, only a small fraction of NAPA’s members were professional pilots, and Behncke’s proposals fell on deaf ears.

In 1930, Behncke met with his inner circle of trusted pilots from three different airlines to discuss the creation of a pilots’ union. They were Walter Hallgren and Lawrence Harris from American, R. Lee Smith of Northwest, J.L. Brandon of United, and another United pilot whose name is lost to history – the so called “Lost Founder” of ALPA who is said to have switched over to management not long after the 1930 meeting.

In early 1931, Behncke decided to move forward with forming a union. Many of the owners who would later have formative roles in the US airline and commercial aircraft industry were intensely anti-union. Pat Patterson, the head of United Airlines, declared “Nobody can belong to a union and fly for United!” and Eddie Rickenbacker of Eastern Airlines became a lifelong foe of the union.

Eddie Rickenbacker in his SPAD S.XIII

Gathering twenty-four trusted fellow pilots from other airlines, Behncke and the “Key Men” met at the Morrison Hotel in Chicago on 27 July 1931 and formed the Air Line Pilots Association (ALPA). Because of the attitudes of their respective employers, the “Key Men” were referred to by letter codes in an attempt to hide their identities. Bryon Warner of United, for example, was known as “Mr. A.”

As membership of ALPA grew, Behncke had to move the operation out of his home and into a two-room suite at a Chicago hotel. A large number of pilots were tired of how they were treated at their respective airlines but many airline managers were quite open in their threats to fire anyone joining ALPA and believed they needed to stamp out ALPA quickly before it gained momentum.

Many of the “Key Men” from the 1931 meeting ended up losing their jobs. Some airlines found other ways to punish pilots who joined the union: TWA, for example, often shuttled pilots among different crew bases at short notice in an effort to make their families’ lives difficult. Schedules were often used punitively against anyone even suspected of ALPA membership. Many pilots who weren’t fired found themselves demoted from airliners to open cockpit biplanes flying mail at night.  

In 1932, Behncke was working on affiliating the ALPA with the American Federation of Labor (AFL) when a strike at a small airline thrust him and ALPA into the national spotlight. E.L. Cord was an aggressive businessman who, in a few short years, had assembled an impressive industrial and transportation conglomerate. He started as an auto salesman for Auburn Auto, a company he acquired in 1924, turning the company around and introducing several new models a year. He accomplished this with a ruthless attack on labor costs that would set the pattern of his business dealings in future corporate acquisitions. In short order, he acquired Dusenburg Automobiles as well as both Yellow Cab and Checker Cab.

Stinson Detroiter

Cord then moved into aviation, acquiring Stinson Aircraft (he was a private pilot who owned a Stinson Detroiter) and Lycoming Engines. Cord owned Stinson Aircraft when the company produced the Stinson Trimotor, which competed for airline orders with the Ford Trimotor. While the Ford Trimotor cost $40,000, Cord’s draconian cuts in labor costs at Stinson meant he could offer the Stinson Trimotor for only $25,000.

Ford Trimotor

In 1930, Cord decided to get into the airline business seeing the profit potential with air mail subsidies. He started Century Airlines which began flying in March 1931 with three daily round trips between Chicago and St. Louis via Springfield and three daily round trips between Chicago and Cleveland via Toledo. Quite naturally, Century Airlines flew Stinson Trimotors. He then set up other similar airlines around the nation, all with “Century” as part of their name. In addition, he acquired other smaller carriers like a small Texas-based outfit called American Airways. Lacking a lucrative air mail contract, Cord cut costs as far as he could, reasoning that if he could operate his airlines at half the cost of the established airlines, their air mail contracts would be canceled and given to him. With lower costs already, he stood to make a significant profit as a result.

Cord had figured out he could pay pilots as little as $150 per month at his Century Pacific operation between San Francisco and Los Angeles and still find pilots willing to work for him. Century Airlines based in Chicago had higher paid pilots at $350 per month, still quite a bit lower than the industry standard of the day. Since he was getting away with only $150 per month with Century Pacific, Cord cut the salaries of the 25 pilots working at Century Airlines to $150. The chief pilot at Century, Duke Skonning, called the rates “starvation wages” and wanted to bargain with Cord. Cord agreed to a 10-day period before instituting the new wage cut, but he had no intention of bargaining with the pilots who he already held in disregard. At the end of the 10-day period, as each Century flight arrived at Chicago Midway (it was called Chicago Municipal back then), each pilot was escorted off the plane by Cord’s guards and made to sign a new agreement for $150 per month. Every single pilot refused, setting off the first strike in the airline industry.

Now locked out, the pilots showed up at Behncke’s door led by Skonning, who told Behncke “Well, here we are. We have been locked out. What is the Association going to do about it?”

Behncke’s work to affiliated the ALPA with the AFL paid off quickly. Immediately the AFL’s Chicago chapter began work with the ALPA and the striking pilots. Behncke asked each ALPA member at other airlines to chip in $25 to help pay the bills of the striking Century pilots. Soon radio spots were airing throughout Chicago to bring attention to the Century strike. Cord quickly hired strikebreakers but before they could show up for work, ALPA members would meet with them to explain what was stake. Most still went to work with Cord, but some stayed with ALPA with the promise of help finding a non-strikebreaking flying job. This infuriated Cord, who then sequestered his new hires under armed guard at the airport. This angered the City Council of Chicago, who didn’t like Cord treating city property as a prison. Cord was subpoenaed to appear before the Council, but he didn’t show up which further hurt his cause.

The AFL made sure that Congress knew of Cord’s actions and ALPA gained its first political ally: Representative Fiorello La Guardia from New York emerged to champion ALPA’s cause in Congress. It spawned a friendship between David Behncke and La Guardia that lasted long after La Guardia became mayor of New York City.

Facing pressure for Congress, Cord sent a letter to each member of Congress referring to ALPA and the Century pilots as communists. Since most pilots had military backgrounds, this backfired and many Congressional officials sided withe the ALPA and against Cord. Cord’s luck was running out and in 1932 he gave up control (but not ownership) of his airline ventures. They were folded into a holding company and rebranded as American Air Lines.

By 1936, Behncke had found pilot jobs for all of the striking pilots from Century Airlines. He also made sure all the strikebreakers at Century were exposed. Many of those strikebreaking pilots soon found it difficult to find jobs in the industry. Behncke agreed to take them into ALPA and assist them in finding work, provided each striking pilot from Century Airlines found work first. The Century Airlines strike gave ALPA national recognition which wouldn’t have been possible without the help of the AFL and the friendship of Fiorello La Guardia. With newfound stature and friends in all the right places, many of the airlines that only a few years earlier tried to stamp out ALPA now were forced to acquiesce to its presence among pilot ranks.

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1 Response

  1. Scott Becker

    Wonderful tribute, JP! ALPA remains a fierce advocate for safety, oft times overshadowed by contentious contractual embroilments with industry. A senior captain once pointed to his ALPA tie pin (as important as the tie at UAL) and proclaimed it his most expensive piece of jewelry. Effective representation comes at a cost, we can thank David Behncke it is in the form of 1.95% gross pay contribution rather than with the lives of passengers and crew.

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