FHSG President and airline labor expert Jerry Glass was quoted in The Wall Street Journal:
Contract talks between the biggest U.S. carriers and their pilots’ unions have turned acrimonious in recent weeks, with pilots saying the summer disruptions have left them as frustrated as passengers.
Airline employees have been picketing at airports for months. The board of the Allied Pilots Association, which represents pilots at American Airlines Group Inc., decrease; red down pointing triangle on Wednesday voted down a proposal for a two-year contract that would have boosted pilot pay by about 20% over that time. Delta Air Lines Inc. decrease; red down pointing triangle pilots overwhelmingly voted this week to let union leaders call a strike if they decide it is necessary—a vote that is largely symbolic for now but reflects pilots’ frustration with what they see as stalled progress. United Airlines Holdings Inc. decrease; red down pointing triangle pilots rejected an unpopular agreement its union struck earlier this year.
Capt. Jason Ambrosi, chairman of the union that represents Delta’s pilots, said the company offered an underwhelming pay proposal. “Our pilots have essentially had enough,” he said.
Meanwhile, airlines say that negotiations remain on track and that they believe they can come to agreements.
Fraught labor relations and rancorous bargaining are nothing new for the airline industry, and negotiations that take place every few years are often marked by strong rhetoric before deals are reached.
There are also new dynamics. The Covid-19 pandemic upended the industry just as talks between some airlines and pilot groups were getting under way, putting discussions on hold. Now, as travel demand surges back to prepandemic levels, several airlines are contending simultaneously with years of pent-up frustration among pilots and other labor groups.
Unions are closely watching what rivals are doing, and provisions to ensure that another carrier doesn’t offer a better deal have become common, said Jerry Glass, president of consulting firm F&H Solutions Group and a longtime negotiator for airline management and other industries. Competition for workers, including pilots, has grown fierce, and unions are leaning heavily on airlines to make changes that will improve their quality of life.
“Pilots are looking for the perfect deal,” Mr. Glass said.
U.S. labor laws make airline strikes difficult and rare—the last time U.S. passenger airline pilots went on strike was at Spirit Airlines Inc. in 2010. It is far from inevitable that Delta pilots will reach that point, and it could take months for the process to play out. The National Mediation Board would first have to agree that talks have reached an impasse, and would then offer both sides a chance to arbitrate their dispute. If either refused, there would be a 30-day cooling off period. Alaska Air Group Inc.’s pilots had also voted earlier this year to authorize a potential strike, but they came to terms months later.
Airlines have started making money again after losing billions of dollars during the pandemic, and they are striving to bring on thousands of new pilots—shattering previous yearly hiring records—in an effort to meet burgeoning travel demand.
Smaller regional airlines have negotiated huge wage increases to attract and retain pilots after bigger airlines plundered their workforces. Airlines such as JetBlue Airways Corp. have warned that pilot turnover has been higher than normal. Some airline executives say the industry faces a shortfall that could last years.
Given the industry’s optimism about travel demand, Mr. Ambrosi said, “The talk of ‘we’re just getting out of a pandemic, we can’t afford [pay increases]’ is not something our members are going to tolerate.”
Delta said the vote authorizing a strike was an effort by the union to gain leverage in negotiations, which continue to progress, and won’t affect the airline’s operation.
The deal that United Airlines pilots voted down by a big margin Tuesday would have included pay raises of more than 14.5% over 18 months, but the union said it fell short.
The union leaders originally backed the agreement, but the two sides had resumed negotiations as it became clear that the agreement was faltering amid pushback from pilots unhappy with the proposed pay raises and certain work rules. Capt. Mike Hamilton, who leads United’s pilots union, said Tuesday that United has dragged its feet.
A United spokesman said the airline is already working with the union on a new agreement that it expects will include improved pay rates.
In October, Alaska Air became the first major carrier to reach a deal with its pilots, agreeing to an initial pay increase of up to 23%. The airline’s highest-paid pilots will make $306 an hour, up from $266.29, with additional increases in later years.