Talks between Alaska Airlines and its pilots union took a turn when the pilots asked management to bring their benefits up to par with crews at competing airlines. The development is the latest chapter in negotiations that have run for more than 18 months.
“We are asking for the same quality-of-life and job security improvements that pilots at other major airlines already enjoy,” the Alaska’s chapter of the Air Line Pilots Association (ALPA) said in a letter to airline CEO Ben Minicucci. “We are asking that you bring these provisions in line with our peers and for the opportunity to vote on a market-rate contract.”
The primary request centers on scheduling flexibility, Will McQuillen, chair of the master executive council of Alaska’s ALPA chapter. PIlots are seeking more flexibility to add or drop trips and to schedule missions for a better work-life balance. “This flexibility does not exist in the current contract,” he said, adding that pilots at most other major carriers have the scheduling flexibility Alaska’s pilots seek.
The current contract became amendable on April 1, 2020 and has been in force since 2013. In 2017, the contract was amended to incorporate former Virgin America pilots after the merger with that airline closed. Last year, negotiations shifted away from the details of the new contract to how the airline its pilots union would react to the Covid-19 pandemic. “There was a real stall in terms of negotiations,” McQuillen said. “Our contract is frozen in time a decade ago.”
The union notes in its letter that pilots made “personal financial sacrifices” and lobbied for federal funding, among other measures, to help keep the airline afloat amid the pandemic. During the pandemic, 137 pilots took early retirement, leaving the carrier with about 2,800 pilots on its roster, McQuillen said.
But now that the pandemic is receding, Alaska is on the verge of returning to profitability. “Pilots at Alaska want the airline to be successful and and we want to participate in its success,” McQuillen said. Part of that involves beefing up job-protection provisions in a new contract. The union wants an iron-clad assurance that Alaska will not outsource pilot jobs, and that pilots will be protected in the event of a merger or acquisition.
“We are committed to reaching agreement on a contract that recognizes the contributions of our pilots and allows Alaska to continue to grow,” a spokesperson for the airline said. “We have a history of getting deals done with our employees and believe the best job security is a profitable and growing company.”
The new West Coast alliance between Alaska and American Airlines is not an area of concern, McQuillen said, although the union wants assurances that the deal will provide job security and opportunities for growth for pilots at both airlines. Right-wing media have erroneously speculated that vaccine mandates are causing labor unrest at several airlines and were responsible for Southwest Airlines‘ recent operational meltdown. The requests for more benefits at Alaska are not driven by concerns over vaccine mandates as they have been at other airlines, McQuillen stressed.
Where the negotiations lead next remains unclear. Alaska has signaled its intention for mediation. “After mutually agreeing to pause contract negotiations for 12 months to navigate the pandemic, we restarted dialogue with ALPA earlier this year,” the airline spokesperson said. “As a next step in our negotiations process and to help us reach a timely agreement, we have filed for mediation with the National Mediation Board and look forward to continued negotiations.”