Alaska’s Pilots Ask For More Benefits as Pandemic Recedes

Madhu Unnikrishnan

October 25th, 2021 at 12:01 AM EDT

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 (MEC) of Alaska’s ALPA chapter, told Airline Weekly. 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.” 

But the MEC had a different take on the matter. “The company has shown no willingness to address pilot concerns,” McQuillen told reporters after Alaska’s earnings call last week. “Pilots want job security provisions similar to those in every other mainline pilot contract.”

McQuillen said the MEC requested private mediation, and the NMB process is “notoriously slow.” If contract negotiation drag on, Alaska risks losing pilots and will not be able to compete for new talent, he said, adding that attrition already is worrisome. And exit interviews with pilots leaving the airline reveal that job security and flexibility are the top concerns. “If Alaska wants to attract pilots, it will have to address the pilots’ concerns,” McQuillen said.

Madhu Unnikrishnan

In Other Labor News

  • American Airlines regional carrier Piedmont could have a strike on its hands. The regional’s chapter of the Association of Flight Attendants (AFA) have voted to authorize a strike. Chief among their complaints is pay, which they say is lower than their peers. The carrier and the union have been in talks over a new deal for three years, and the union rejected management’s most recent offer by saying its wage increases were offset by increased health costs. “Flight attendants kept Piedmont flying through the pandemic. How does management thank us? By offering a ‘deal’ that would mean cuts to our take-home pay,” AFA Piedmont President Keturah Johnson said.

    With the strike authorization, the union can ask the National Mediation Board to release it from negotiations, which would trigger a 30-day cooling off period before a strike.
  • Iceland’s Labor Court hauled Icelandair to the bench over an escalating spat with its ground-staff union. At issue is what the union says was the illegal firing of a union representative, Ólöf Helga Adolfsdóttir. The union says Icelandair fired Adolfsdóttir for speaking out against unfair labor practices. The union has asked for Adolfsdóttir to be reinstated but said Icelandair has rejected the request. The case is expected to be heard in the next two weeks.

    Madhu Unnikrishnan

Madhu Unnikrishnan

October 25th, 2021 at 12:01 AM EDT