Pilots close to striking over poor working conditions with Alaska Airlines

Apr 27, 2022, 3:56 PM | Updated: Apr 28, 2022, 10:11 am
(Nicole Jennings)...
(Nicole Jennings)
(Nicole Jennings)

In a unanimous decision, the Alaska Airlines Air Line Pilots Association‘s (ALPA) Master Executive Council (MEC) voted to authorize a strike, allowing the opportunity for pilots to strike for the first time in the company’s 90-year history.

The vote came after an informational picket was held on April 1, with more than 1,500 individuals in support of the airline pilots’ cause.

This strike, if passed, would include all Alaska Airlines pilots.

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“We truly hope to reach an agreement so the public isn’t inconvenienced,” MEC Chairman Captain Will McQuillen said. “To be clear, we’re not currently on strike, but if one is authorized by the National Mediation Board, it would have a substantial impact since all Alaska pilots would be on strike.”

The council’s vote to allow the union to strike can occur once all other means of contract negotiations are exhausted. The voting period will take place from May 9 until May 25.

ALPA has been in negotiations for three years with Alaska Airlines, with frustrating results, according to McQuillen.

“The strike is fully avoidable,” McQuillen said. “What we’re seeking is in place at every competing airline.”

The pilots’ demands revolve around flexibility in schedule, a better work/life balance, fewer mid-flight changes in routes and trips, and job security.

Staffing at Alaska Airlines continues to be a significant issue, as pilots, both new and experienced, are leaving for other career opportunities at other airlines.

“Now that we are hiring across the company again with an eye on growth, we are also focused on investing in and caring for our diverse workforce,” Alaska Airlines CEO Ben Minicucci said in a testimonial in front of the Senate Commerce Science and Transportation Committee in December 2021. “We are monitoring and learning about how the workforce is changing and how we can support them as they take care of guests and operate a strong airline. We will see challenges and opportunities as we look to meet demand, but I am confident that we can all collaborate again and ensure we continue to have a world-class, highly qualified and talented aviation workforce.”

“Attrition is such that the airline is wasting nearly half its training capacity training replacement pilots,” McQuillen said. “During exit interviews, time and time again pilots are leaving to other carriers for better quality of life.”

The pandemic added further stress to contract negotiations, requiring pilots to make even more substantial sacrifices for the airline to succeed

“Early in the pandemic, the pilots’ union offered solutions to save Alaska pilot jobs and keep the company competitive” a press release from the union read. “The plan included innovative voluntary leaves of absence in lieu of forced furloughs. This saved the company significant expenses and — most importantly — allowed it to quickly return to full capacity. Additionally, many senior pilots chose to retire early as their final contribution to Alaska Airlines’ success and to ensure junior pilots kept their jobs.”

McQuillen, a pilot for Alaska Airlines for the past 16 years, has noticed a change in priorities from the company, resulting in a deteriorating workforce and depleting morale.

“There’s been a degradation in culture with both front line employees and pilots,” McQuillen said. “There has been a shift in focus towards shareholders and the results are where we are right now.”

Captain David Campbell, the strategic communications chairman for the MEC whose 31-year piloting career includes a 20-year tenure with Alaska Airlines, agrees with McQuillen’s sentiment.

“It’s never been great, but all industries have their ups and downs, and it’s understandable the entire world had to tighten its belt, but what pilots are seeing is their peers have everything they are trying to achieve,” Campbell said. “It becomes increasingly frustrating to listen to the company’s narrative that they would be at a competitive disadvantage. It’s hard not to be discouraged with how the company is talking and treating us.”

Minicucci once said, “we’ve never put our pilots at the top” during an on-the-record testimony in August 2017.

Campbell credits the union’s patience in negotiations, including the decision to hire a third party for private mediation, which he described as “ineffective and disappointing.”

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“We have been diligent in providing the company time to make this deal,” Campbell said. “And the last time we met, they used the word ‘impasse.’ ”

“The pilot group feels pushed,” McQuillen continued. “No one wants to strike, but a strike is becoming necessary. We have done the homework, why won’t they?”

If the situation remains at an impasse, President Biden would have an opportunity to intervene due to the Railway Labor Act. The act states that the Presidential Emergency Board can get involved when essential transportation services are threatened with a 30-day review of the situation and a following 30-day “cooling off” period to help both sides come to an agreement and avoid a strike, management lockout, or attempted unilateral imposition of work rules.

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Pilots close to striking over poor working conditions with Alaska Airlines