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Why Are Some Alaska Airlines Pilots Leaving The Company?

Across the country, airlines are on a hiring spree right now. The biggest carriers forecast to employ around 4,200 pilots this year and 9,000 the year after. Among those looking to take advantage of the post-pandemic travel boom is Alaska Airlines, whose Chief Financial Officer Shane Tackett recently told the Seattle Times they were looking to hire some 3,000 people next year.

But there’s a problem: Alaska Airlines is currently suffering a mass exodus of its most experienced pilots. Employee numbers are still 2,000 fewer than pre-pandemic levels and the airline is locked in a long-running negotiation with its pilots over their employment contracts.

The Air Line Pilots Association (ALPA), which represents Alaska pilots, recently released a short video explaining why former employees had decided to leave the airline. Chief among their concerns was a lack of job security, as well as inflexible shift schedules that made having a personal life nearly impossible.

Alix Lowell, a former Alaska first officer who recently moved to Delta Airlines, said she and her husband had had serious trouble managing their schedules while she was at her previous job, particularly when it came to picking up and trading flight routes.

“Whereas I can basically, with Delta, drop down to nothing and build my schedule the way I want,” she explained, adding that this gave her more time to focus on being a mom.

United Airlines First Officer Marcus Williams suffered a similar experience at his old job, remembering that he “couldn’t imagine” himself getting married or having children while he was working at Alaska.

Both pilots said they were much happier after changing company, with Lowell stating: “I really love my job and I feel like Delta wants to keep their pilots happy”.

The issue of flexible shifts has become a huge problem for Alaska Airlines. In the video, union chairman Capt. Will McQuillen said the complaint came up time and again during exit interviews and that he was worried the airline would be unable to attract talent in such a competitive hiring market.

McQuillen has previously described more flexible scheduling as “industry standard”, allowing pilots to pick up and drop routes “when life demands it”. In the video he observes that Alaska’s pilots’ contracts were last ratified in 2013 and that they appear “frozen in time” compared to the rest of the industry.

Alaska pilots are calling for more flexible shift schedules, which unions describe as "industry standard".

Contract negotiations between the airline and its pilots have been active since 2019 but were halted during the height of the Covid-19 pandemic. In October, ALPA wrote to Alaska’s CEO Ben Minicucci to “stop stalling” and “do the right thing” by coming back to the negotiating table. Alaska says it has filed for mediation through the National Mediation Board, however pilots have called this a ‘stalling tactic’ since meetings with the government agency are spaced six to eight weeks apart.

Meanwhile, on October 21, Alaska posted its results for the third quarter of this year, revealing a $196 million profit – the first time it has been in the black since the pandemic began. By the end of the year, the airline is projected to make $1.6 billion.

Since the pandemic began ALPA have been keen to highlight the importance of worker-first business practices for ensuring the airline industry is ready to cope with a rebound in passenger numbers. In a recent interview with USTN, ALPA President Capt. Joe DePete said the government’s Payroll Support Program had meant that “rather than massive layoffs, airlines were able to keep pilots on the payroll and ensure they were ready to return to flying.”

However, with an estimated 612,000 new pilots needed over the next 20 years, Alaska looks like it has cut that particular safety net gains as it continues negotiating its way out of the pilots it already has, let alone those to come.

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