With major U.S. air carriers facing a shortage of pilots, Alaska Airlines management agreed to a tentative deal Friday with the leadership of its pilots union that provides breakthrough improvements to the contract.
The proposed contract with the Air Line Pilots Association will now go to a vote of the almost 3,300 Alaska pilots in the union.
After months of increasingly confrontational negotiation, the two sides agreed on a deal that includes substantial pay increases plus key provisions that enhance job security and ease work rules to provide more schedule flexibility.
“It’s a lot more than the pay increases,” said captain David Campbell, who heads communications for ALPA’s Alaska Airlines unit. “This contract wins major improvements the pilots have wanted for decades.”
The deal offers Alaska captains initial pay increases of between 15% and 23% depending on seniority. First officers get increases of between 8% and 23%. Each gets further raises in 2023 and 2024.
In 2024, captains will be earning $300 to $331 per hour and first officers $108 to $229 per hour, depending on years of service.
In addition, the agreement includes provisions to raise wages further if competing airlines later agree to better terms. This clause will raise an Alaska captain’s pay to the average of the top-of-scale rates of captains flying Boeing 737 MAXs and Airbus A321neos at United, American, Delta, Southwest and JetBlue.
Will McQuillen, a captain and the chair of ALPA’s Alaska unit, said the agreement also “brings our job security and quality of life in line with our peers.”
The job security comes from a management commitment not to outsource flying to regional carriers without a specific exemption from the union.
And changes in work rules increase schedule flexibility and reduce the number of days pilots are away from home.
“We worked hard at the negotiating table to obtain an agreement that captures the many improvements that our pilots have consistently told us were important,” McQuillen said.
Alaska’s Chief Financial Officer Shane Tackett said in a statement: “We deeply value our pilots and are happy to have reached a tentative agreement … that can now be considered for ratification by our entire pilot group.”
The agreement “addresses the things that matter most to our pilots, while also supporting a sustainable business model,” he added.
Tackett said the process of voting on the deal could take “several weeks.”
The union’s hand was strengthened by the ongoing shortage of pilots at airlines across the U.S.
That followed the severe contraction of pilot jobs during the pandemic and the industry’s failure to bring all of them back when the pandemic eased.
As air travel returned in the spring, Alaska’s management touted plans for accelerated growth to investors, proposing to expand its airplane fleet from 300 to 400 airplanes by 2025 by adding new Boeing 737 MAXs.
A deal to strengthen the pilot ranks was clearly necessary for those aggressive expansion plans to move forward, giving the union a powerful bargaining position.
Pilot shortage causes travel chaos
It’s been more than two decades since pilot unions had such strength.
After the terrorist attacks of 9/11 hit the U.S. industry, airline labor unions had to agree to concessionary deals. More concessions followed the global financial crisis of 2008.
When the negotiations for a new Alaska pilot contract began in early 2019, little progress was made. Then the talks were disrupted in 2020 by the pandemic, during which many pilots took voluntary leave.
This year, domestic air passenger traffic surged back while many pilots close to retirement did not return to the workforce. The shortage of pilots across the industry led to widespread disruption of air travel and cutbacks in scheduled services.
Alaska was particularly affected in April and May when a large number of flights had to be canceled, creating chaos for passengers and shredding the airline’s longtime reputation for reliable service.
As the summer progressed, Alaska managed to reduce the number of cancellations only by cutting flights.
Throughout the year, even as Alaska management stepped up hiring and training of new recruits, the airline has been losing a significant number of its experienced pilots with steady defections to its larger competitors — in particular Delta, which has a big Seattle base.
The union claims Alaska was on track to lose 180 pilots this year, not including retirements.
Alaska’s management acknowledged the pilot talent drain in April, adding that they were also losing some new recruits who left Alaska’s pilot training school early to take offers from other airlines.
Meanwhile, as the Air Line Pilots Association talks dragged, in April almost half of Alaska’s pilots took part in an off-duty picket of the airline. Then in May, the pilots voted overwhelmingly to authorize a strike if a deal could not be reached.
The deal struck Friday, if ratified, may finally stem the outflow of pilots, steady Alaska’s operational schedule and spur management’s growth plans.
One more labor contract pending at Alaska Air
The deal with Alaska’s mainline pilots follows a stunningly improved contract ratified one week ago by the pilots at Alaska’s regional sister carrier, Horizon Air.
The Horizon pilots fly smaller Bombardier Q400 and Embraer E175 regional airplanes and are much lower-paid than the Alaska Airlines pilots flying bigger Airbus and Boeing jets.
The Horizon pilots union, Teamsters Local 1224, won a blowout wage hike — average increases of 74% for captains and 85% for first officers — because regional carriers nationwide have had to massively increase pay to stem a staggering outflow of pilots to the major airlines.
“These are market rates in the regional industry now,” said Joe Sprague, president of Horizon Air.
The pay raises for Alaska’s mainline pilots, though very substantial, didn’t match those at Horizon.
The pilot deal, if ratified, will leave Alaska with only one major labor contract pending: for its flight attendants.
The airline’s airport customer service reps, stores, cargo, ground service and reservations agents, all represented by the International Association of Machinists, ratified a two-year contract extension last month.
The contract with the Association of Flight Attendants union becomes amendable in December and negotiations officially kicked off this month.
With Alaska facing a shortage of flight attendants too, the AFA will also be in a strong bargaining position.