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Why Are Pilots’ Unions Threatening To Strike?

Just as airlines were coming out of the Covid-19 woods, another challenge has emerged to threaten US air travel – pilot strikes. This week alone 30,000 pilots from unions at both American and United rejected new employment contracts, leaving the door open to potential strike action. Outside of salary demands, there are a multitude of reasons outside why pilots are threatening to strike, varying from more leisure time to increased schedule flexibility.

Conversations about renegotiating pilots’ contracts began before the COVID-19 lockdowns and were stalled by the pandemic. These rising tensions have been exacerbated by the serious knock that the industry took during the pandemic, with airlines losing around $35 billion in 2020. These losses have given airlines very little wriggle room when it comes to renewing contracts.

Despite demand having more or less returned to pre-pandemic levels, the airline industry now faces two new challenges: pilot shortages and the rising cost of raw materials. Those pilots who have remained through the pandemic are now demanding pay increases for their increased schedules, however rising inflation, coupled with the financial impact of the pandemic years, means it will be a serious battle for airlines to meet the demands of their pilots without letting costs spiral.

Due to the short supply of pilots, some smaller carriers have increased pay dramatically. Securing such deals may become a challenge for larger carriers as more pilots may move to the higher paid jobs with smaller airlines, worsening the shortage. Meanwhile, larger carriers may see both their biggest costs, fuel and pay, rise exponentially over the coming months.

Currently the average salary for a senior wide-body aircraft captain working at a major airline is around $300,000. However, it’s important to note that this can vary according to company and seniority.

Attempts have been made to ease tensions and renewed contracts have been offered, although the majority have been unsuccessful in meeting pilots’ demands. For example, American Airlines offered their pilots a raise of 19% but this was swiftly rejected by the Allied Pilots Association.

Contrastingly, in a more successful story, Delta airlines have noted that “significant progress” had been made in negotiations with pilots, adding that there are “only a few contract sections left to resolve.”

There are demands, outside of pay, that pilots are also looking to have included in new contracts. These include more flexibility with hours: for example, being able to add and cancel jobs more quickly.

Outside of pilots, other aircraft staff are also looking for improved working conditions. Flight attendants at Southwest, American and United have all begun picketing at airports and company headquarters demanding more pay and contract improvements.

On top of their relationships with pilots and other employees, airlines also have to make sure they keep their investors happy. The rock-bottom demand for flying during the pandemic years, followed by a spike in the price of fuel and other amenities, means that airlines which are renegotiating contracts will have to be very diplomatic in how they sell these increased costs to their investors.

Airlines now face the difficult task of navigating new contract deals that meet the needs of pilots but also keep a lid on spending, whilst keeping investors calm and meeting the needs of their customers. Already, airlines such as Delta are working on ways to ease the pilot shortage through training programs, which in time will ease the workers’ schedules.

It’s clear that airlines and pilots need to work together during contract negotiations to make sure both pilots have their needs met, and airlines can keep planes in the sky and continue to keep costs in line with consumers’ demand.

Photo: AP Photo/David Koenig

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