Alaska Airlines' pilots will take a pay cut of about 26 percent beginning today, an arbitrator notified the airline and its pilots union...

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Alaska Airlines’ pilots will take a pay cut of about 26 percent beginning today, an arbitrator notified the airline and its pilots union Saturday.

Pilots also will make higher health-care contributions and be subject to various work-rule changes intended to improve productivity, arbitrator Richard Kasher decided. No changes will be made to pilots’ pension or profit-sharing plans.

The airline and the Air Line Pilots Association (ALPA) began contract talks in October 2003. Kasher was called in as arbitrator when the parties could not reach an agreement by mid-December 2004.

The decision riled the union, which said Alaska’s nearly 1,500 pilots would continue to provide good service “despite the unconscionable decision by the arbitration board to penalize our pilots for the shortcomings of management.”

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The decision will put unnecessary hardship on the airline’s pilots and their families, Capt. Mark Bryant, chairman of the Alaska pilots union, said in a statement last night.

Profits at the Seattle-based carrier have suffered partly from high fuel costs and low ticket prices, leading management to look for ways to shave expenses in many areas. Pilot pay represents a large portion of overall wage costs at any airline.

Management at the nation’s ninth-largest carrier welcomed the decision.

“This allows us to move forward with a competitive wage and benefit package for our pilots and helps us achieve a better cost alignment with other major carriers,” Dennis Hamel, Alaska’s vice president of employee services, said in a statement.

The contract becomes amendable in two years.

Alaska’s baggage handlers are voting this week on a proposal from management that, if passed, could save the jobs of 500 unionized workers in Seattle. Their union does not like the terms of the proposal and has recommended that workers vote against it.

Melissa Allison: 206-464-3312 or mallison@seattletimes.com