During the pandemic, Alaska Air Group management told its pilots to be sure to stay home if they had any symptoms of COVID-19, the illness caused by the coronavirus. Yet a new policy at the airline’s Horizon Air subsidiary means those who called out sick more than five times in the past year jeopardize their career path at the airline.
In complaints to the pilots union and on private Facebook groups, Horizon pilots say that because the policy threatens to bar them from moving up to the more lucrative jobs at Alaska Airlines, it could lead to safety risks.
“For me, as a pilot, there’s a direct safety correlation,” said one Horizon captain in an interview. “I guarantee you, now or in the near future, there’s going to be a pilot who is definitely sick and should call out for safety reasons, and they’re not going to because they want to get hired by Alaska Airlines.”
The new rule was laid out in a July email sent to those considering applying for Alaska’s Pilot Pathways Program, the standard way for young pilots flying Horizon airplanes to graduate to much better-paid jobs at Alaska Airlines.
The new eligibility requirements for applicants state that pilots flying Horizon’s regional airplanes who have more than five sick leave absences in a 12-month period — an “absence” is a single sick leave event, which could be one day, or a week, or longer — may not qualify to step up for a job on the mainline jets at Alaska Airlines.
The tightened sick leave policy comes as the airline struggles to find enough pilots to meet a surge in travel demand, threatening a repeat of the wave of flight cancellations that crippled Horizon in the summer of 2017.
Hunter Chumbley, chairman of Teamsters union Local 1224, which represents the Horizon pilots, said the policy was not disclosed before July.
“We were shocked to hear that Alaska is refusing to hire Horizon pilots over legitimate use of their sick leave,” he said.
“Airlines should encourage employees who feel sick to stay home … especially during a pandemic,” he said. “Instead, Alaska appears to be doing the opposite by denying Horizon pilots career advancement if they call out sick too many times. “
Federal Aviation Administration regulations require every commercial airline pilot to “affirmatively state he or she is fit for duty prior to commencing flight.”
For pilots working in close quarters with other crew members, exposure to the coronavirus was to be expected during the pandemic, on top of the usual colds, flu, food poisoning or other illnesses, and family issues that could require an absence.
Alaska Air spokesperson Bobbie Egan acknowledged that “we allow for pilots to have up to five leave occurrences,” but added that it’s not a rigid policy and that it’s standard for employers to review a candidate’s personnel history.
“We want reliable employees. If someone has an absentee problem, they will take that into account,” she said. “They review every application on a case-by-case basis.”
The email laying out eligibility for the Pilot Pathways Program was sent to Horizon pilots by base chief pilot captain Kisa Wiley, a title that makes her the point of contact between the pilots and management.
Responding to questions from the pilot group, she said management was offering the assurance that a pilot’s absence records “will be reviewed holistically.”
Egan said that in a subsequent Pathways Program discussion with Horizon pilots, Alaska Airlines chief pilot Scott Day clarified that five sick leave occurrences “wouldn’t disqualify a candidate … but it would prompt additional questions.”
Clearly though, pilots who find themselves beyond the stated quota of five absences feel at risk.
“It’s pretty disappointing,” said the Horizon captain, who asked for anonymity to protect his job. “We got numerous emails during the pandemic saying, ‘if you have any symptoms, don’t show up to work.'”
He said that as a result, he went over the sick leave quota in the past year, with more than half of his absences related to potential coronavirus exposure and in one case, a scheduled COVID-19 vaccine.
“I’m worried because, whether there are some that are abusing the [sick leave)policy or not, it is directly going to contribute to somebody making a bad safety decision based on pressure from the company.”
“You’re stuck making a safety decision: flying [while unwell] or jeopardizing your career,” he said.
The sick leave issue has boiled over as both Horizon and Alaska Airlines face a severe pilot shortage — and management is blaming sick leave for much of the current crunch.
Last week, captain David Mets, an Alaska Air director and base chief pilot at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport, along with his peers at all the main Alaska hubs, sent a memo to Alaska Airlines mainline pilots noting that in July the airline canceled 19 flights due to lack of pilots and that “the leading cause by far” was sick leave.
The memo told the pilots that sick leave was up 31% in July from the previous month and was 10% higher than July two years ago, pre-pandemic.
It said the direct cost of those 19 cancellations is “the rough equivalent of training 10 new-hire pilots,” and that the potentially larger cost is the “negative passenger experiences for 2,500+ impacted guests and potential loss of future business.”
This translates into a hit to Alaska’s “operational and economic performance,” the memo added.
Mets and the other base chief pilot directors told the Alaska pilots that “the long-term solution is well under way in the form of the most aggressive pilot hiring plan we’ve ever seen.”
Though the memo contained an explicit injunction to use sick leave where needed, it added that base chief pilots will be managing leaves of absence more actively.
That line riled the union representing Alaska Airlines pilots, the Air Line Pilots Association, which is currently in contract negotiations with management. In a message to its members, the local ALPA leadership said that individual pilots should determine their own fitness for duty.
“This is a further erosion of the culture of safety at Alaska Airlines and evidence that our Company is losing its way,” the memo said.
A couple of veteran Alaska Airlines pilots, who also asked for anonymity to protect their jobs, said management must bear a lot of the responsibility for the pilot shortage.
More than 150 very senior Alaska pilots took retirement packages during the pandemic. The airline is now trying to hire hundreds of pilots in the coming year, a challenging task as it competes for talent with bigger airlines that pay more.
“The company could have mitigated this problem by bringing pilots back from their leaves but the company was unwilling to commit to that due to the increase in costs it would have caused,” one of the veteran pilots wrote in an email. “Now that we’re in the peak summer season, the pilot group is significantly understaffed.”