Another unbelievable turn by airline pilots. The pilots’ unions are determined to continue the cycle of boom and bust at their companies. No sooner do wage concessions and corporate savings strategies begin to pay dividends than the pilots begin to demand a bigger piece of the pie. The sense of entitlement among these pilots is frightening.
A little history. In the mid 90s United Airlines asked for and received concessions from its pilots to the tune of 15% of their pay. They were compensated with equity in the company which allowed the employees to be the majority stock holders and make UAL the largest employee owned company in the world. Over the next several years, and culminating in 2000, pilots’ pay was gradually increased back to 1994 wages, or the wages which existed prior to the 15% reduction. In 2000 a new contract was proposed and UAL had promised in the 90s that this contract would make the United pilots contract “industry leading.” Now with pay back at 1994 levels the unions calculated that if simple cost of living adjustments had been made each year then the pay should have gone up 16%. So a 16% raise represented, from a buying power stand point, no raise at all. So they asked for, and got, another 2%. This made their paychecks 18% bigger. Wow. But wait. The pilots on the 777s and 747s got a 29% raise because in the year previous Delta had given their 777 pilots a huge raise. Thus, in order to make the United contract industry leading, all the United pilots flying planes as big as or bigger than the 777 should be making more than the Delta pilots. This came to be known as the Delta Dot. (Note: I am not an airline historian. But I was a United pilot at the time and lived through this. The dates and percentages may be off, but only marginally. I left United of my own volition in 2003 because of dissatisfaction with the industry and the company over these very issues. I was not furloughed. I could still be there flying if I wished.)
It is inevitable that every time a pilot group gives up a certain percentage in wage concessions that once the company rebounds the pilot group will ask for all of their concessions back and, in all likelihood, a nice little raise to cover inflation and for being “super good guys” who saved the company. Their attitude is that the company should be thankful that the pilots came along and saved them again.
What makes pilots think they’re entitled to anything? Because they GAVE UP money in the past? They shouldn’t have been getting THAT pay either. UAL knew in 2000 that an economic downturn was on the horizon (after 6 boom years under Clinton) and the raise being offered was fiscally irresponsible. But their hands were tied. There has always been speculation that corporate knew the downturn was coming and that UAL would have to ask for concessions in a few years time anyway, so the company would never have to pay out the huge sums of money tied up in the new 7 or 8 year contract.
In bankruptcy United had a chance to fix things permanently. United Airlines currently employs about 7000 pilots. They make any where from $30,000 a year to $250,000 year. They do this while flying 15-20 days a month on average. However, commuter pilots earn far less–making any where from $18,000 per year to $70,000 per year working more and longer days.
In bankruptcy, United should have immediately cut most pilot pay by 50%and adjusted the pay scale to between $40,000 and $150,000. Any pilot not wishing to stay could leave. The reality is, though, that most pilots feel incarcerated into the aviation profession. Lacking a viable career alternative they would have been forced to accept. Vacancies created by the pay reduction would have been easily filled by commuter pilots, or additionally, corporate pilots. These pilots would have seen the new pay scale as a significant increase from their commuter pay and would have have been thrilled with the work rules and benefits at the major carriers. There would have been a line a mile long to fill those vacancies. And there would have been no drop off in pilot quality.
I have personally flown for and trained at a major airline. Aviation skill has little to do with academics or aesthetics. The reality is, the commuter pilot is, on average, every bit as good as his major airline counterpart. Why isn’t he (or she) flying for a major? Maybe he only has an Associate’s Degree; or perhaps he had a DUI when he was 20; or maybe he has buck teeth or missing teeth. The reality is that with the high pay scales the major carriers could pick from an over-educated, handsome pool of candidates. If I were hiring at a major carrier today I would look at 90% of the people currently flying and tell them that they are over qualified. Many of these people have every right to expect salaries in the low to mid $200,000s. They just shouldn’t expect it from the airline industry. There is no longer a need for this type of education level in our cockpits today and the airlines shouldn’t pay for it.
Boeing and Airbus both currently build their airplanes to attract additional market share from developing countries whose pilots may only have a GED equivalent. And the new airplanes are not falling out of the sky. Technology has rendered skilled labor less important, just as it did with the check out girl at the grocery store. When I was growing up, the check out girl had the grocery store had inventory and prices memorized. She manually entered every item that rolled past her into her register and she was paid good money to do it. Today, a 16 year old kid can do the job and makes minimum wage. Airline pilots are seeing the same thing happen. Boeing and Airbus and rendering their skill level obsolete. When we see major airplane crashes today it is seldom because of a minor difficulty mishandled. It is because of multiple and catastrophic mechanical failures that virtually no pilot could survive. The training at the major airlines is second to none and the airplanes are mechanically reliable to the point that individual pilot expertise on the level once desired in the late 60s and early 70s is no longer a valuable economic paradigm.
But the pilots continue, through their unions, to insist on the paradigm. They long, every day, for a return to the glory days. But the glory days are gone and the best thing that could have happened for the industry and for the public would have been a catastrophic paradigm shift by the carriers in bankruptcy. But it didn’t happen. And all the pilots see is that they gave up salary and now they want it back. Can’t they see that it is their new pay scale which is contributing to a return to profitability? Don’t they anticipate that increased fiscal pressure from rising labor costs might put the company in economic danger again? Would they really rather fight for better pay today at the expense of a job tomorrow?
Of course, never trust the union. It’s in the unions best interest to fight for more pay. If they don’t advocate for the pilots (who, in general, give 2% of their gross salary for the privilege) then the pilots may pick a different union to represent them. So the advice of the union to the pilots is tainted with self interest.
In the last 6 years, what has the airline industry to make things better for the consumer? All they have done for 6 years is cut service and amenities. They have asked the consumer to bear their fiscal burden as a result of their mismanagement. Now, instead of the pilots being happy not to be standing on the precipice of unemployment and wanting to see their companies improve their product for the passengers, they want more for themselves. This shocking arrogance is all any passenger needs to know the next time a labor dispute disrupts their travel. The pilots don’t care about you. They only want more for themselves.