Rotorcraft labor group is spreading its wings

 - May 6, 2008, 9:19 AM

Claiming already to represent some 1,100 professional helicopter pilots and maintenance personnel, the Professional Helicopter Pilots Association (PHPA) has officially opened its doors. Beginning life as part of the Office and Professional Employees International Union (OPEIU), the new union got its start with the organized employees of Gulf of Mexico operators Air Logistics and Petroleum Helicopters Inc. and with the civilian instructor pilots at the U.S. Army’s primary rotorcraft training school at Fort Rucker, Ala.

Rotorcraft pilots at all three of these operations organized and signed up as independent locals of OPEIU in the late 1990s. “This union stresses the autonomy of its locals in determining their demands,” said union president Butch Grafton. “OPEIU supports its locals but does not dominate them.”

The new helicopter labor group officially opened its doors to new members at the end of June. PHPA is campaigning to organize for new members via its Web site (

“Helicopter pilots fly versatile aircraft that are capable performing myriad tasks that no other class of aircraft can do,” Grafton said. “Consequently, helicopter pilots find that although they fly the same basic machine, the things they are tasked to do with that machine are vastly different. This versatility tends to separate us as a profession. This diversity has made it difficult for us to come together as a single group that is strong enough to promote our profession, our goals and our ideals. That’s what we’re trying to do with PHPA–preserve our diversity while unifying our strength.”

Just before its official launch  PHPA was recognized by the International Federation of Airline Pilots Associations (IFALPA), and delegates from the union were invited to the IFALPA annual meeting in Stavanger, Norway. In a move that should come as no surprise to anyone who has ever shown up as the newcomer to an established organization, the PHPA delegation was not only welcomed warmly to a session of the IFALPA’s helicopter committee, but Grafton ended up being elected as vice chairman by the end of the meeting.

Among the benefits currently being offered to new members are annual subscriptions to Heli-Ops (most recently known as Pacific Rotors Magazine), a subscription to PHPA’s own Autorotate magazine, a PHPA baseball cap and bumper sticker, $1,000 life-insurance policy, job listings, employer comparisons, resumé service and more (Grafton  said the list of benefits will keep growing). A first-year introductory membership costs $45, with regular membership set at $60.

Of course, the true value of a union is to provide collective bargaining aimed at benefiting all of a given employer’s pilots. In its first excursion into collective bargaining, the PHI pilots represented by PHPA’s Local 108 in 1997 received a 58-percent increase in wages. This is in addition to other improvements to benefits and working conditions.