Staff shortages, bad weather, high fuel prices and runaway inflation – airlines face numerous challenges if they are to take advantage of a strong travel recovery. But there’s at least one other complication in the mix: negotiating new pilot contracts.
Each of the country’s largest airlines is trying to strike a deal with pilots. In some cases, airlines seem willing to pay significantly higher wages, with two major airlines recently offering to raise wages by more than 14 percent over the next year and a half.
But money alone may not be enough. Pilot unions are also demanding changes that they believe would improve operations and the quality of life of their members, especially as flight disruptions during recovery have left pilots feeling frustrated and overworked.
They may be well positioned to get what they want, industry analysts say. A growing shortage of pilots was exacerbated during the pandemic as airlines encouraged thousands of pilots and other employees to accept buyouts and early retirement offers. With the industry hiring record numbers of pilots but struggling to attract, train and retain them, their unions are pushing hard for broader changes.
“You definitely can’t beat quality of life with money,” said Casey Murray, a pilot and the president of the Southwest Airlines Pilots Association. “You’re never going to pay someone enough for a lost piano recital with their daughter or a lost baseball game.”
Airlines in the United States have already hired more than 5,500 pilots this year, more than in any full year since at least 1990, according to Future & Active Pilot Advisors, a pilot careers consultancy. The four largest airlines — American, Delta, Southwest and United — were responsible for the bulk of that hiring and together employ approximately 50,000 pilots. Those airlines say they’ve had little trouble finding qualified candidates, although the smaller, regional airlines they hire from are struggling.
But even at the largest airlines, training bottlenecks have slowed down the process of hiring new pilots. Those delays have hurt efforts to take full advantage of the travel recovery and in some cases contributed to unexpected meltdowns as bad weather, staff shortages and coronavirus outbreaks conspired to turn what may have been contained unrest into bigger airline disruptions.
To avoid such problems this summer, the industry has largely kept its ambitions in check. During May, for example, airlines canceled about 2.5 percent of domestic flights scheduled for June through August, according to Cirium, an airline data provider. And those problems are not limited to pilots or to one part of the world: understaffing has occurred all over Europe airlines forced to cancel flights and has led aviation workers to go on strike above working conditions.
In the United States, airlines have tried to shift some of the blame onto the Federal Aviation Administration, arguing that the industry doesn’t have enough air traffic controllers to operate smoothly.
Read more about organized labor in the US
In a message to staff last week, United’s Chief Operations Officer Jon Roitman said the aviation system will remain “on trial this summer and beyond” unless the agency addresses its staff shortage. But the FAA disputed that characterization, arguing in a statement that while controller shortages have played a part, “most delays and cancellations are not due to FAA staffing levels.”
Whatever the cause, disruptions and last-minute schedule changes have frustrated pilots across the industry, leading to complaints of overtime to the point of fatigue. In a full-page newspaper advertisement last monthThe leadership of Delta’s pilots’ union, known as the Delta Master Executive Council, said that, at current rates, the airline’s pilots will have worked more overtime this fall than in all of 2018 and 2019 combined.
Higher wages remain the subject of negotiations with Delta, said Jason Ambrosi, the board’s chairman, but pilots are also demanding better working conditions.
“We are going to work on compensation, but as part of a broader package that includes quality of life, the schedules, the fact that pilots can show up at work and have their schedule completely messed up and have no idea where they will be laying that night said Mr. Ambrosi, who is also a Delta captain. “There are situations where a pilot can be extended for several days – he has his bag packed for two days and ends up being gone for four days.”
According to the unions representing these pilots, more than 1,500 Delta pilots and 1,300 Southwest pilots across the country have pecked to publicize their concerns. In early June, American colleagues protested at the New York Stock Exchange for better working conditions. The unions say some of the changes they are seeking predate the pandemic; they are seeking to recover benefits, including pensions and overtime protection, which they say were lost in a wave of bankruptcies in the 2000s.
Just over two years ago, the pilots of the four major airlines were in the early stages of contract negotiations. But those efforts were essentially halted by the onset of the pandemic. The industry’s focus shifted to survival, and airlines and unions joined forces to successfully lobby Congress for $54 billion in pandemic aid.
The travel recovery languished until last summer, when the widespread availability of coronavirus vaccines sparked a resurgence. Contract talks have resumed in earnest this year.
United and its pilots have come the closest to a new contract after signing a two-year agreement what pilots will vote on this week. Under the deal, pilots would receive a series of pay increases that would increase pay by more than 14.5 percent within 18 months. They would also get better pay for overtime and during busy periods; eight weeks of paid maternity leave; better planning flexibility; and more protection against overtime.
Last month, American published its own pilot offerings, which largely matched United’s deal and would increase base pay by nearly 17 percent by early 2024. That would raise the highest base salary for a captain of a one-aisle aircraft to $340,000 per year. years, while a captain of a larger two-aisle plane could earn as much as $425,000 a year, the airline’s chief executive said in a message to pilots. The offer includes substantial signing bonuses if pilots agree to it at the end of September.
But the union representing the 14,000 American pilots, the Allied Pilots Association, was unimpressed. In a video message to union members, Ed Sicher, the chairman, argued that this was “the most competitive market in history for qualified pilots,” and one that would largely lead to favorable pay increases. He encouraged union members to continue to focus on getting better planning and assignment rules.
“We all know the real value of this deal for our members: it’s in the solutions to the heavy work rules for the business practices that continue to degrade our quality of life,” he said.
A slowly growing shortage of pilots has shifted the dynamics of similar negotiations in recent years, experts say. The shortage was caused by a number of factors, including a thinning military-to-airline pipeline and an aging workforce. The industry struggles to bring in recruits, who are drawn to other fields and discouraged by the approximately $100,000 in training costs. In retrospect, it seems clear that during the worst of the pandemic, airlines pushed out too many pilots, with thousands taking early retirement and buyout offers, according to industry analysts and airline executives.
“Over the past 20 years, corporate influence in general has eroded, especially for skilled positions such as mechanics and pilots,” said Dan Akins, an aviation economist at Flightpath Economics, a consulting firm. “That’s exaggerated by the release of seniors during Covid.”
But the shortage has been most acute among regional airlines, which say they are being crippled as larger airlines lure pilots away. To make matters worse, many who leave have experienced or have jobs training newer pilots, executives at those airlines said.
That pressure is increasing the wages for pilots on those smaller airlines. American recently announced massive pay increases for its pilots working on its regional airlines, a move expected to be repeated across the industry. However, aviation analysts say that pilot pay increases on regional and larger airlines are unlikely to have a major effect on fares. While pilot wages are significant, they represent only a small proportion of airlines’ total operating costs.
As negotiations continue, the sector’s dynamism may soon take on new forms. While demand is booming this summer, continued high inflation and fears of an economic slowdown could lead to weak demand for travel in the coming months, analysts say.
Airlines are “bringing back” for a delay, said Sheila Kahyaoglu, an aerospace and defense analyst at Jefferies, the investment bank. “Maybe the scheduling problem will solve itself.”