On October 19, about 200 members of the union’s board of directors, representing pilots from each of the 40 member airlines, will vote for a new president to take office in January and serve a four-year term. ALPA represents about 65,000 pilots.
Not surprisingly, the contest for president of the Air Line Pilots Association primarily involves leaders of ALPA’s two largest members, Delta and United.
Jason Ambrosi has been chairman of the Delta pilots since January 2021, while Todd Insler, former chairman of the United pilots, left office in March due to term limits after three terms. Ambrosi is an Atlanta-based Boeing 757-767 captain while Insler is a Newark-based Boeing 787 international captain. Both are backed by the master executive councils of their airlines.
Since its founding in 1931, ALPA has had 11 presidents, including three from Delta, two from Eastern, two from Northwest, and one – current president Joe DePete – from FedExFDX +0.4%. Only one, Dave Behncke, was from United: he flew for United predecessor Boeing Air Transport when he founded ALPA. (Behncke also flew for Northwest.)
As of Friday, Delta ALPA and United ALPA each counted 14,500 member pilots at their airlines. Pilot counts at most airlines are growing. DePete is expected to resign at the end of his term.
The election comes at a crucial time in the pilot profession, due to a vast demand for pilots that is occurring just as more than half of the ALPA member airlines are in contract talks. Most talks have been delayed by the pandemic. Most pilots expect substantial pay increases: The number 20% over three years has been floated as the amount of a possible increase for pilots at American Airlines, which is not an ALPA carrier, and pilots at regional carriers have secured even larger increases.
Additionally, many pilots have been victimized by unusually demanding summer flying schedules, the result of bad weather; overscheduling; a sudden vast increase in demand after pandemic cutbacks; and understaffing at every level of the aviation infrastructure.
Both Ambrosi and Insler have been active, visible pilot leaders: Both say they want to expand ALPA’s visibility. For the moment, Sara Nelson, president of the Association of Flight Attendants, is the most visible airline labor leader in Washington, while Dennis Tajer, spokesman for the Allied Pilots Association, which represents American pilots, is often called on to represent pilots on TV news shows.
Ambrosi and Insler have both advocated for pilot groups beyond their own airlines. Both recently appeared at a FedEx pilot demonstration. Ambrosi is chairman of the SkyTeam Pilots Association. Insler has repeatedly spoken out in behalf of the labor movement, including international pilot groups. On Sunday, for instance, he retweeted posts supporting workers at both the Philadelphia Museum of Art and WeyerhaeuserWY 0.0%. In 2017, he and Nelson were at the forefront in organizing an AFL-CIO hurricane relief flight to Puerto Rico.
Insler has also taken the lead in speaking out against a nascent campaign advocating for single-pilot commercial aircraft and flights. Ambrosi also opposes the single-pilot cockpit campaign.
A third candidate for ALPA president is John Barton, a retired United captain who appears to have limited support. In an email, Barton said he is running “to prioritize safety in our piloting profession and to protect good-paying American jobs.” He had a 32-year career at United, ending as a Boeing 777 captain.
Ambrosi, 49, joined Delta in 2000 after working for four years at regional carrier ASA. At Delta, he was furloughed from April 2003 until May 2008. “I started out in the 1990s as a young man working for ASA, and I got involved in union work,” he said. “I walked my first picket line in ASA in my 20s,” he said, noting that he was not deterred by the thought that the visibility would diminish his chance to get to Delta.
While furloughed at Delta, Ambrosi felt “disheartened;” and wondered whether “ALPA had lost touch with membership. “ After his return, he was energized when pilots rejected a 2015 tentative agreement negotiated by the Delta MEC. “At that time, it felt like members woke up,” he said. “We became more of a bottom-up organization.”
Insler, 53, joined United in 1995 after flying for cargo carrier Ryan International and for the former Ransome Airlines, then flying as TWA Express. In 2016, he was elected chairman of the United ALPA MEC. In 2018 and 2020, he was unanimously re-elected.
Insler has been able to build consensus not only within the union but also with the airline. During the pandemic, United ALPA secured future contractual gains including 5% raises for pilots, and United seemed less impacted by pandemic delays during the industry recovery in late 2021 and 2022.
Three months after Insler’s term ended in February, United pilots reached a tentative agreement that included a 14.5% pay raise that was rejected by members. Insler was among those who opposed.
“The company approached us in December and wanted to close out the contract,” he said. “But the deal didn’t have enough value for us. I rejected it three times before leaving office, but then the company resurrected it and brought it to the pilots. I was not supportive.”
Insler noted that pilots at many airlines were furloughed in the early part of the century, as most major airlines sought bankruptcy court protection. He tried to set a different course during the pandemic. “Watching the furloughs that took place during bankruptcy, I (saw) what ALPA maybe does not do correctly,” he said. “We didn’t always take care of all our pilots. So during the pandemic, what was important was to make sure we did that. We saved jobs at United and we were able to achieve permanent gains in the contract. We set United up for growth and it worked.”
Ambrosi said Delta pilots have made significant gains outside traditional contract negotiations including groundbreaking job security and large narrow-body pay rates.
Additionally, in the new contract, he said, “Our pilots have expectations for an agreement that exceeds anything currently out there at legacy carriers. We will soon deliver a truly industry leading contract that will set the standard for collective bargaining moving forward”
He noted that he led the battle to secure MEC support for AFA’s effort to unionize Delta flight attendants. “I work very closely with Sara Nelson,” he said. “I applaud her for everything she has accomplished. That’s the change I am talking about. The traveling public is embracing unionism at a high clip: we should embrace that now and seize on it.”
“There is generational change coming to our union,” Ambrosi said. “It’s about paternity and maternity leave and schedule flexibility. Airlines just want to compete with each other, but Delta is a Fortune 100 company. We should compete with all of them on benefits.”
Both Ambrosi and Insler say ALPA needs to extend its influence so it helps all members, not just the biggest ones. “Bring the tide up so it raises all ships,” Ambrosi said. Insler said ALPA has to help all its members, not just the bigger ones. “ALPA has to make sure that every ALPA chapter has the resources it needs to be successful,” he said.
This article originally appeared on Forbes