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Airline Pilots Demand Higher Wages and Better Treatment

Pilots are feeling frustrated and overworked, and say that the rebound in air travel has made these issues worse by disrupting operations. With staffing shortages, bad weather, high fuel prices, and runaway inflation, airlines are facing many challenges asthey try to take advantage of the strong travel rebound. However, there is one other complication complicating things: negotiating new pilot contracts. Each of the nation’s largest carriers is currently in the process of trying to reach an agreement with its pilots.

The airlines are willing to pay higher wages to attract pilots, but the unions are also demanding other changes that they say would improve their members’ quality of life. With the industry struggling to attract and retain pilots, the unions are in a good position to get what they want. You cannot improve someone’s quality of life by simply giving them more money, said Casey Murray, a pilot and the president of the Southwest Airlines Pilots Association. He went on to say that no amount of moneycould make up for things like missed time with a daughter’s piano recital or a son’s baseball game. 

According to Future & Active Pilot Advisors, a career consulting firm for pilots, airlines in the United States have already hired more than 5,500 pilotsthis year. This is more than any full year since at least 1990. The four largest carriers -American, Delta, Southwest, and United -accounted for most of that hiring and collectively employ about 50,000 pilots. Those airlines say they have had little trouble finding qualified candidates, though the smaller, regional airlines from which they hire are struggling.

Despite efforts by airlines to ramp up training, a lack of available pilots has caused delays in putting new pilots to work. These delays have hampered airlines’ ability to take full advantage of the travel recovery, and in some cases have led to larger disruptions when bad weather, staff shortages, and coronavirus outbreaks occur. In order to avoid similar problems to what occurred last summer, the airline industry has significantly reduced the number of flights scheduled for June through August by 2.5%. However, these problems are not exclusive to pilots or one area of the world, as aviation workers across Europe have gone on strike due to unfavorable working conditions.

In the United States, airlines have sought to shift some of the blame to the Federal Aviation Administration, arguing that the industry does not have enough air traffic controllers to run smoothly. In a message to staff members last week, Jon Roitman, United’s chief operations officer, said the aviation system would remain challenged this summer and beyond unless the agency addressed its staffing shortage. But the F.A.A. disputed that characterization, arguing in a statement that, while the controller shortage has played a role, the majority of delays and cancellations are not because of staffing at F.A.A.

Pilots across the industry have been complaining about being overworked to the point of fatigue due to disruptions and last-minute schedule changes. In a full-page newspaper advertisement last month, the leadership of Delta’s pilot union, known as the Delta Master Executive Council, said that, at current rates, the airline’s pilots will have worked more overtime by this fall than in all of 2018 and 2019 combined. Jason Ambrosi, the council’s chairman, said that higher wages are a focus of negotiations with Delta, but pilots are also demanding better working conditions.

More than 1,500 Delta pilots and 1,300 Southwest pilots picketed across the country last month to raise awareness of their concerns, according to the unions that represent those pilots. In early June, their peers at American protested outside the New York Stock Exchange for better working conditions. The unions say some of the changes they are seeking predate the pandemic; they are trying to recover benefits, including pensions and protections against overwork, that they say were lost in a wave of bankruptcies in the 2000s. A little over two years ago, pilots at the four big airlines were in the early stages of contract negotiations. But those efforts were essentially halted by the start 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 prompted a rebound. Contract talks resumed in earnest this year.

The airline company United and its pilots have come to atwo-year agreement that, if voted on and approved by the pilots this week, would result in a series of raises totaling more than a 14.5% pay increase within 18 months. The agreement would also include better pay for working overtime or during high-demand periods, eight weeks of paid maternity leave, more schedule flexibility, and greater protections against overwork. Last month, American publicized its own offer to pilots which, according to the airline’s chief executive, broadly matched the United deal and would raise base pay by nearly 17% by the start of 2024. This offer from American would result in the top base salary for a captain of a single-aisle plane reaching $340,000 a year, while a captain of a larger twin-aisle plane could earn as much as $425,000 annually.

The union representing American’s 14,000 aviators, the Allied Pilots Association, was not impressed with the new contract. Ed Sicher, its president, argued that this was “the most competitive market in history for qualified airline pilots,” and one that would largely drive favorable pay increases. He encouraged the union’s members to remain focused on securing better rules governing scheduling and assignments. “We all know where the real value in this deal is for our members: It’s in the fixes to the onerous work rules to the company practices that have continued to degrade our quality of life,” he said.

A slowly building pilot shortage has shifted the dynamics from similar negotiations in years past, experts said. The shortage was caused by a number of factors, including a thinning military-to-airline pipeline and an aging workforce. The industry has struggled to bring in recruits, who have been attracted to other fields and discouraged by the approximately $100,000 in training costs. In hindsight, it appears clear that airlines pushed too many pilots out during the worst of the pandemic, with thousands taking early retirement and buyout offers, according to industry analysts and airline executives. For the past 20 years, in general, company leverage has eroded, especially for skilled positions like mechanics and pilots,” said Dan Akins, an aviation economist with Flightpath Economics, a consulting firm. That’s been exaggerated by the release of senior people during Covid.

The shortage of pilots has been most severe at regional airlines, which have said that they are being hindered by larger carriers hiring away their pilots. The problem is made worse by the fact that many of the pilots leaving are experienced or held jobs training newer pilots. This pressure is causing pilot pay at smaller airlines to increase. American recently announced large pay increases for the pilots who work at the regional airlines it owns, and it is expected that other airlines will follow suit. However, airline analysts do not believe that pilot pay increases will have a major effect on fares. Pilot pay is substantial, but it only makes up a small portion of airlines’ overall operating costs. The airline industry is preparing for a potential slowdown in travel demand in the coming months.

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