The airline industry is recovering from its post-9/11 downturn, but pilot salaries - which have been depressed for years - are not increasing in tandem, says Captain John Prater, new president of the Air Line Pilots Association International, which represents 60,000 pilots at 40 airlines in the USA and Canada

The dark clouds of the airline industry's post-9/11 period aren't gone yet, but they are fast receding over the horizon. Virtually all financial and economic industry indicators are moving strongly in a positive direction. The only question being asked about bankruptcy now is not "who's next?" but when, and under what terms, the few remaining Chapter 11 airlines will emerge. In other words, the industry is recovering briskly from the post-9/11 perfect storm and returning to profitability.

"The time has come for all pilots to benefit from the upswing in the cycle" Captain John Prater, Airline Pilots Association International
Unfortunately, many airline managements don't want to talk about their airline's recovery with employees. Some seem to think their workers' sacrifices should be permanent, that wages and benefits must be suppressed to keep the company cost structure competitive.


For some reason, though, this logic doesn't apply to executive pay raises, bonuses, massive stock grants or "up-streaming" cash to parent corporations rather than reinvesting it in the operating entities. Adding insult to injury, staffing reductions have led to severe levels of pilot fatigue, with airlines having no ability to deal with routine schedule disruptions without pushing pilots to fly even more bone-crushing schedules.

Airline pilots are demanding to reclaim their share of the revenue stream to offset the enormous losses they suffered to keep their airlines flying. They will not accept the current situation much longer, let alone absorb further cuts. Pilots are supporting fellow pilots at other airlines during picketing and demonstrations. Anyone who thinks these acts are mere union set pieces designed to present a brave face at the bargaining table does not see what is happening. ALPA's leaders are not telling their pilots it is time for a change they are telling us. They've given their union a mandate to "take back control of their profession" and 2007 marks the turning point for that change.

Not only are these changes possible in 2007, collective bargaining returns and worker respect are required for pilots to help lead the airline industry back into its fundamental role at the heart of the nation's economic engine. "Employee recovery" is also required to avoid further alienating and radicalising airline workers. When Frank Lorenzo took on unions at Continental Airlines in 1983, I was a strike co-ordinator for pilots. We suffered a painful blow but did not quit.

And unionism, which led to new pilot contracts and profits, eventually came roaring back at Continental - a tribute to airline pilots' spirit and a lesson for management that seems to be lost. Solid contracts lead to solid company futures. Labour unrest due to flights through bankruptcy courts must be successfully resolved or profits will again disappear. No airline management has long succeeded without the support of their rank and file workers.

The primary lesson I carried forward from that period is firmly and fully sinking into pilot consciousness. When the post-9/11 avalanche of bankruptcies and cuts hit this industry, most airline workers greeted each round of bad news with a sigh of relief that it was not their airline. As long as it was not them, they felt safe. Understandably, solidarity with their fellow pilots was not the first thing on their minds.

But the relentless drumbeat of draconian cuts has finally forced pilots to abandon that narrow frame of mind. They now understand that whatever harms one airline pilot harms the entire profession. Pilots from different airlines, and even different unions, are now convinced that offering mutual support and working on shared goals are the only way that we can survive. Their overarching message is that we must act forcefully to take back our profession and that we must do it together. That theme encompasses a lot of territory, from collective bargaining to safety and security. We intend to cover it all.

Expanding horizons

Shortly after I took office in January, ALPA convened a three-day bargaining conference that was attended by the top pilot representatives from 39 airlines in the USA and Canada. This included seven of the leading independent pilot unions. The meeting was held because pilots told us that the time had come to expand horizons past the parochial interests of each group. Pilots recognise that the industry's stick-and-carrot tactics have exploited our Achilles' heel. Pilots today are acting to make solidarity a fundamental part of the plan, not an afterthought.

The time has come for all pilots - and all airline workers - to benefit from the upswing in the cycle. We are not willing to accept the post-bankruptcy reality as the new ceiling, nor are we willing to accept interminable delays as part of the recovery process. The groundswell of pilots' dynamism and resolve is a clear indication that they expect to take back control of their profession and restore the balance at the bargaining table. The fact that they are willing to place higher goals for the profession above short-term, limited interests, and work together toward these targets, makes me confident that we will.

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Source: Airline Business