Members of the Compass and Trans States Master Executive Councils strategize at a joint meeting held at ALPA’s Herndon, Va., offices in October 2017. Both carriers are owned by Trans States Holdings, Inc.
Once a wholly Midwestern operation, Compass Airlines moved west in 2017 to better serve its mainline partners and seek new opportunities in the booming West Coast airline market.
The carrier that was created a decade ago to feed passengers to Northwest Airlines hubs in Minnesota, Michigan, and Tennessee closed its Minneapolis, Minn., domicile in December 2017 and added a new pilot base in Phoenix, Ariz., to its existing Los Angeles, Calif., and Seattle, Wash., domiciles the same month, completing its transformation to a West Coast feeder for Delta and American Airlines, according to Capt. Nik Wagenknecht, the Compass pilots’ Master Executive Council (MEC) chairman.
“We fly almost exclusively in the western half of the country, even though our MEC office and corporate headquarters are still based in Minneapolis. It’s been a transition for everyone,” said Wagenknecht.
The airline was originally created more than a decade ago as a wholly owned subsidiary of Northwest Airlines, and for the first three years of its existence the pilots were represented by first the Northwest MEC and then the Delta Air Lines MEC. Compass became a stand-alone MEC in 2010.
Compass became a Delta Connection carrier after the 2008 merger of Delta and Northwest. Many of the pilots originally hired by Compass are now working for Delta thanks to a former flow-through agreement. Compass has been owned by Trans States Holdings since 2010.
Like many fee-for-departure carriers, the Compass MEC is challenged by the constant transition of experienced volunteers and elected representatives who are leaving the airline to further their careers.
“It’s a good problem to have because it’s an indication of the strong pilot-hiring market, but the situation makes it difficult to keep our committees fully staffed,” Wagenknecht noted. “We’ve tried to address this by holding regular committee summits each year so that vice chairs and other committee volunteers are trained and ready to step up when their colleagues move on.”
The MEC also created an executive administrator position in 2016 to assist the MEC with its ever-increasing workload.
Compass was one of the first fee-for-departure carriers to use first-year pay incentives to attract new-hire pilots to the airline. The company had unilaterally implemented bonuses, which the MEC challenged. Through a settlement agreement with the pilots, the company increased pay for first-year first officers last year and had the option to further increase pay, with a trigger to increase the entire first officer pay scale.
Little more than a year later, the benefit of the initial raises have proven to be short-lived. In October 2017, the company further increased the rates to the maximum allowed by the agreement, triggering increases for the rest of the first officer pay scale while leaving captain rates unchanged. In spite of the first officer pay increases, the airline is falling behind its peers like Delta Connection carrier Endeavor Air and is struggling to recruit new hires as a consequence.
Even more worrisome, management continues to unilaterally change compensation and work conditions with no input from the pilots, including new first-year pilot payments; a vacation buyback program in which pilots voluntarily give up their vacation at the pay rate of 125 percent, which still resulted in the cancellation of December 2017 vacations; an announced right-seat captain qualification program; and implementing scheduling and position bidding programs that don’t comply with the contract.
“The pilots and the company have scheduled a mediation session in late January to begin addressing the growing number of grievances and other problems,” said Wagenknecht. “The company has indicated it wants to work together with the pilots to achieve mutually beneficial resolutions, and we hope it will.”