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Why are United Airlines Pilots Picketing?

Adding further fuel to the fire of this summer’s travel season, United Airlines pilots have started picketing in protest of their wages, working conditions, and unresolved contract negotiations. According to the organizing union, the Air Line Pilots Association (ALPA), at least 3,000 United pilots picketed at ten major airports across the country. The union said it was the “largest non-strike rally in the history of commercial aviation.”

The pilots have taken to picket lines to demand higher pay. For four years they have been working on the same salary without a raise, during which time they have pushed for a new contract with airline executives. Furthermore, the union says their quality-of-life rules have not been updated for over a decade. Top pay for a captain at United ranges from $369 to $297 per hour, depending on the size of aircraft. According to the Labor Department, airline pilots fly an average of 75 hours per month.

According to the airline, pilots have been offered an 18% average pay increase, with 5% raises that started in December. Joshua Freed, a United spokesman, said the airline was “continuing to work with the Air Line Pilots Association on the industry-leading deal we have put on the table for our world-class pilots.”

United Airlines pilots took to picket lines at ten airports across the country. Photo: Reuters

But this is not enough for some United pilots. One, Arzu Delp, said, “We made quite a few sacrifices during the pandemic, and we feel it is now times for the company to step up to the plate and to give us a contract, acknowledging the sacrifices and the contributions that we have made.” He was picketing at San Francisco International Airport in the hope of making this message clear to the airline.

United Airlines reassured passengers concerned about the effects of the picketing on traveling. “All United flights will operate as planned while our pilots exercise their right to distribute information and picket while off-duty,” the company said in an announcement the day before picketing began.

While United pilots have taken to picket lines in order to increase the pressure on airlines to negotiate new contracts, they are unlikely to strike. Due to federal law, it is very difficult for airline unions to conduct strikes; the last walkout was more than a decade ago, at Spirit Airlines in 2010. Airline workers are barred from striking until explicitly allowed by the National Mediation Board. This can only happen if the board deems all avenues have been explored and further negotiations are pointless.

Pilots at United Airlines have been in contract negotiations for four years. Photo: Getty

It is not just United that finds itself in hot water concerning unresolved contract negotiations with pilots. Trouble has also been brewing at other carriers: at American Airlines and Southwest Airlines pilots have overwhelmingly voted for strike authorization at their unions. The Southwest vote, held on May 11, saw 99% of pilots voting in favor of the action, citing “operational disasters” and endless negotiations.

Casey Murray, president of the Southwest Airlines Pilots Association (SWAPA), said in a statement, “We do not take this path lightly. […] We want our customers to be prepared for the path ahead and make arrangements on other carriers so that their plans through the summer and fall are not disrupted.”

Captain Dennis Tajer, a spokesperson for the Allied Pilots Association, has pointed out that, out of the four major US carriers (American, United, Southwest and Delta), “only one of them has formulated a plan with their pilots”. In March, Delta and the ALPA agreed to an “industry-leading” 34% pay rise for Delta pilots, a move that set a new standard of acceptable pay within the industry. The deal – expected to cost Delta an extra $7 billion over the next four years – also includes policy changes that aim to improve pilots’ quality of life, vacations, and other long-term benefits.

Earlier this year, Delta and the ALPA agreed to a 34% salary rise for pilots across a four-year period. Photo: Delta

Federal law means it is very unlikely United pilots will be able to strike any time soon. But their high turn-out on picket lines across the country shows the depth of their grievances and their willingness to fight for higher pay and better conditions. It remains to be seen if the airline will be able to reach a deal as beneficial to its pilots as the one struck by Delta and ALPA. Until then, tensions between United’s pilots and its management look set to continue as we approach the summer surge.

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