F/O Thiess Cunningham, left, and F/O Kent Cunningham, father and son pilots.

The ExpressJet Master Executive Council (MEC) ushered in 2016 with a flurry of activity when it engaged in expedited negotiations for a short-term contract extension. At that time, the 2011 merger between ExpressJet and Atlantic Southeast Airlines had been progressing at a sluggish pace—the combined company’s financial situation produced a difficult negotiating environment for both MECs. In October 2015, the company approached both MECs with the desire to produce short-term, nonconcessionary separate contract extensions in lieu of a joint collective bargaining agreement.

After careful analysis of the opportunities and disadvantages associated with pursuing a contract extension, the ExpressJet MEC decided to move forward with that plan and launched into intense negotiations with the company. Negotiations quickly produced an agreement in principal that contained modest financial and quality-of-life improvements for the pilot group.

Once the MEC voted to send the extension to the pilots for ratification, the MEC’s Communications, Pilot-to-Pilot, Strategic Planning, and Negotiating Committees developed a detailed plan for presenting the extension to the pilots. The education campaign included road shows in each crew base, all-pilot conference calls, tailored written communications, and Pilot-to-Pilot volunteers and MEC representatives visiting crew rooms.

In February 2016, 83 percent of ExpressJet pilots voted to ratify the contract extension, which continues the pilots’ contract through February 2018. As part of the extension agreement, joint negotiations with Atlantic Southeast have ceased until October 2017, by which time the company anticipates returning to profitability.

“It’s difficult to negotiate an acceptable contract when your company isn’t profitable,” explained Capt. Dave Allen, the ExpressJet MEC chairman. “Fortunately, ExpressJet’s performance and efficiency have dramatically improved in recent years, and the company is trending toward profitability. Signing an extension that will allow us to return to joint negotiations at a time when we expect the company to be profitable was the best option considering the negotiating environment we were in.”

Soon after ratifying the contract extension, the pilots were presented with news that the company had developed a Career Pathway Program (CPP) with United Airlines that offers ExpressJet pilots a guaranteed interview opportunity with United. More than 90 percent of ExpressJet pilots have opted in to the CPP, which allows pilots who successfully complete the United human resources interview process to move to United in seniority order. Under the agreement, a minimum of 25 percent of all United new-hire pilots will be ExpressJet CPP participants. ExpressJet pilots began moving to United through the CPP in late 2016.

“Announcement of the CPP came at a time when our pilot group desperately needed good news,” said Allen. “The CPP will increase attrition off the top of our seniority list, decrease upgrade time, and help us recruit and retain qualified pilots.”

In September 2016, the company announced that its flying contracts with United had been extended through 2018 with the intention to extend the contracts through 2019. This announcement came as a relief to many pilots, as the company’s current contracts with United are set to expire at the end of 2017. However, this news came after an earlier announcement that ExpressJet would be closing its Dallas–Fort Worth, Tex., base during the first half of 2017, when the 16 airplanes ExpressJet operates there will be returned to American Airlines. ExpressJet opened the base in March 2015 when those airplanes were accepted as part of a short-term flying agreement.

The ExpressJet MEC closed out 2016 on a quiet note but is hopeful that as events affecting the operation of the airline unfold in 2017, the pilot group can look forward to a bright future full of opportunity.