Airline pilots ramp up pressure in pay talks as air travel booms

Unions representing airline pilots ramped up pressure on their bosses this week in pay negotiations at three major carriers, restless after feeling squeezed to meet growing demand for air travel that has boosted profits.

Delta Air Lines pilots on Monday overwhelmingly voted to approve a strike—a prospect that is far away but which union leaders say shows the determination of pilots as contract talks drag on. At American Airlines, union leaders rejected a tentative agreement this week, while pilots at United Airlines also voted down a proposed contract.

“Delta has rebounded from the pandemic and is poised to be stronger than ever, posting record revenues for the third quarter. Meanwhile, our negotiations have dragged on for too long,” said Jason Ambrosi, chair of the Delta Master Executive Council, the pilot union’s governing body. “Our goal is to reach an agreement, not to strike. The ball is in management’s court.”

When the pandemic brought the airline industry to its knees in 2020, labor leaders and managers set aside contract talks and lobbied leaders in Washington for what ultimately became a $54 billion rescue package funded by taxpayers. But with the recovery of air travel in full swing, labor and management have returned to opposite sides as pilots push for more of the carriers’ financial gains while addressing grievances from before the pandemic.

On the table are double-digit pay increases and changes to scheduling rules, which would be a boon to pilots but would increase airline costs. The major airlines are closely watching one another’s negotiations and must contend with an agreement Alaska Airlines reached with its pilots last month that provided a 20 percent pay increase.

The series of union votes this week signals that other airlines are not close to a breakthrough.

Almost 10,000 United pilots took part in this week’s vote on the proposed contract, with 94 percent rejecting it, according to the Air Line Pilots Association. The deal would have delivered a 14.5 percent pay increase.

“By the Company’s own admission, this agreement missed the mark,” Mike Hamilton, chair of United’s Master Executive Council, said in a statement. “That’s why both parties agreed to reengage at the bargaining table for a new, improved agreement.”

United spokesman Joshua Freed said the airline and union already are working on a fresh proposal “that we expect to include improved pay rates and other enhancements.”

On Wednesday, a tentative agreement between American Airlines and the 15,000-member Allied Pilots Association was rejected by the union’s board, a move it said showed “displeasure” with negotiations. American did not respond to a request for comment.

Rounding out the four-largest airlines that dominate the domestic market, Southwest Airlines and its pilots union have called for the help of the National Mediation Board as negotiations have stalled. The federal agency oversees labor issues in the airline and railroad industries.

Adam Carlisle, vice president of labor relations at Southwest, said the schedule for talks is up to mediators, who have asked the two sides to focus first on issues with fewer disputes before moving on to thornier questions, such as those involving scheduling.

“Southwest is pleased with the progress we’ve made thus far,” Carlisle said in a statement.

Casey Murray, president of the Southwest Airlines Pilots Association, said his members are looking for a contract that reflects their worth to the airline, adding that a final deal is likely to be about a year away.

While the strike vote by Delta’s pilots raises the stakes in negotiations, a strike is not imminent. To reach that point, mediation would have to fail and pilots would face a 30-day “cooling-off” period before any strike. Unlike the recent negotiations in the railroad industry, there also is no prospect of the entire airline industry facing a strike at the same time.

Delta said its passengers would not be affected by the pilot union’s vote.

“There are many steps remaining in the process and many opportunities left for collaborative negotiations before a strike is even allowed to be considered,” the airline said in a statement. “Delta and ALPA have made significant progress in our negotiations and have only a few contract sections left to resolve. We are confident that the parties will reach an agreement that is fair and equitable, as we always have in past negotiations.”

Alaska’s pilots took a similar strike-authorization vote in May, agreeing on a contract by October that labor leaders at other airlines see as a model. Under the deal, Alaska’s pilots are set to make among the best wages in the industry, according to an analysis by Barclays. Captains with six years of experience will make $290 an hour, and first officers will earn $192 an hour.

When the contract was finalized, both the union’s leader and the company’s chief executive said the aim was to make working at Alaska a lifelong choice.

Dennis Tajer, an American Airlines captain and spokesman for the Allied Pilots Association, said with pilots in such demand, union leaders are optimistic about securing favorable terms as talks resume.

“Any airline that becomes the lesser-paying or the more uncomfortable place for work-life balance will not get pilots to fly for them,” Tajer said.

The labor unrest was bubbling throughout the summer and coincided with a travel season marred by delays, cancellations and rising consumer complaints. But in financial terms, airlines are booming, with some posting record revenue in their most recent earnings—success that executives have attributed, in part, to more flexible work schedules that are encouraging Americans to travel.

Other labor groups in contract negotiations, such as flight attendants, are also looking to share in the industry’s prosperity. Unions have organized pickets to highlight the continued strain that airline workers say they are under as carriers work to meet demand.

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