Air Wisconsin

Air Wisconsin Pilots
Air Wisconsin pilots at a Coffee and Conversation event at Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport.

Air Wisconsin pilots are sending out an SOS, proactively planning to save as many pilot careers as possible in the event the airline can’t deliver a future beyond February 2018.

It’s been known for some time that Air Wisconsin doesn’t have any flying opportunities on the horizon after its contract with American Airlines expires in February 2018. Although the pilots’ Master Executive Council (MEC) expected that management would share its plans with employees, no information has been forthcoming. So with the airline potentially shutting down by early 2018, the MEC, with the assistance of ALPA national’s Strategic Preparedness and Strike Committee, launched in April 2016 a new campaign called “2018: Sunrise or Sunset?”

“We realized that while we couldn’t force the company to make a corporate plan, we definitely could educate and encourage our members to execute personal career plans based on the facts,” said Capt. Chris Suhs, the pilots’ MEC chairman. “One of the MEC’s goals has been to educate pilots on the reality of our situation, because at this point there’s nothing to suggest that management has any plans for us beyond February of next year. In fact, everything suggests management does not.”

Air Wisconsin’s operation has been in steady decline over the past 12 months. Almost a quarter of the airline’s pilots have left, and the trickle of new hires has not been nearly enough to replace those who’ve left. The airline has retired six CRJ200s and will continue downsizing the fleet in 2017.

With attrition increasing and management struggling to maintain its schedule with fewer crews, contract violations have been on the rise. Management is encouraging line check airmen to fly as first officers and also wants to hire nonseniority list instructor management pilots and pay them more than regular new hires, which the pilots have vigorously objected to.

The airline’s stormy skies darkened significantly in September when American Airline’s wholly owned fee-for-departure subsidiaries Envoy, PSA, and Piedmont unveiled substantial new pilot pay increases and signing bonuses. Envoy also announced a new pilot base at LaGuardia International Airport (LGA), and soon after Air Wisconsin revealed it would be closing its small LGA domicile. PSA is also opening a new base in another Air Wisconsin domicile: Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport.

In October, the MEC stepped up its campaign “2018: SOS,” broadcasting the urgency for pilots to make alternate plans, and also compelling the company to have an honest conversation with its employees about whether the airline has any hope of a new deal with American.

“The support and the resources we’ve received from the Association and our peers has been encouraging, but the company needs to have a substantive discussion with the MEC about how it will keep this airline in business or begin an organized, phased shutdown of the airline that will provide safe landings for as many employees as possible and protect American Airlines customers,” Suhs commented.

In an attempt to hire and retain pilots, management recently agreed to a recruitment and retention letter of agreement (LOA) that provides a $5,000 bonus to new hires and a $1,500 bonus for current pilots. Pilots who stay with the airline until October 2017 may also receive retention payments of $5,000 or more for captains and $8,000 or more for first officers. “Although this is a step in the right direction, the payments must be increased in order for the LOA to be effective,” said Suhs.

“The MEC leaders are not giving up,” acknowledged Suhs. “They’re fighting to represent the best interests of the profession and the Air Wisconsin pilots, just as other pilots before us have done for decades. That is the legacy the Air Wisconsin pilot group will leave behind if our airline does unfortunately go out of business.”