Capt. Pete Lira (Frontier) along with 60 pilots and flight attendants participate in a “flash picket” outside of Frontier corporate headquarters in Denver, Colo., on Dec. 7, 2017.
In 2018 the 1,200 pilots of Frontier Airlines stayed on a collision course with their owners and management—the same ownership team that forced the Spirit Airlines pilots into a five-day strike in 2010.
After more than two-an-a-half years of bargaining, the Frontier pilots are feeling left out in the cold, with the company still attempting to wrest contract concessions from a pilot group that is already the lowest-paid in North America and falling further behind with every new pilot agreement.
On average, Frontier pilots earn less than half what pilots flying similar Airbus or Boeing narrowbody airplanes earn. Their company also has the lowest retirement plan contribution of any major U.S. airline.
“While Frontier continues to upstream hundreds of millions of dollars in profits to its private shareholders and to award substantial management bonuses, it refuses to unwind the concessions pilots have made or offer pay in line with that of our peers,” said Capt. Tracy Smith, the pilots’ Master Executive Council (MEC) chairman. “The company’s goal seems to be to keep our pay as low as it can, for as long as it can. That is intolerable to us.”
At the end of April, the Frontier MEC asked the National Mediation Board (NMB) to declare an impasse and start the clock toward a future strike.
“We’ve made our case to the NMB that further mediation will not be helpful. We believe it’s time for the government to release us from mediation, proffer arbitration, and then allow us to enter a 30-day cooling-off period,” Smith observed.
Frontier pilots won an arbitration case last summer over the company’s refusal to engage in good-faith bargaining pursuant to a concessionary agreement the pilots approved in 2011. The pilots, who sacrificed $55 million in pay and benefits, expected the company to negotiate new raises when the airline began making double-digit profits in 2015 and 2016.
A neutral arbitrator ruled in favor of the pilots, saying the airline was negotiating in bad faith when it claimed “business conditions” prevented it from raising pilot wages.
The MEC has sued Frontier in federal court for ignoring the arbitrator’s ruling as well as engaging in bad-faith bargaining and other violations of the Railway Labor Act.
Frontier and its majority owner, investment firm Indigo Partners, are among the most difficult management teams in the industry. Indigo chairman Bill Franke has referred to airline passengers as “spoiled brats” who expect mainline amenities even from low-cost airlines, and Frontier executives have openly squabbled with employees and the news media.
The Frontier MEC has been successful in unifying the pilots in opposition to management’s stall tactics. A strike authorization vote achieved 100 percent approval from the pilots, and the group held massive informational pickets at Denver International Airport and in downtown Denver, Colo., last April and December. Those events attracted more than 300 pilots at each picket, and a “flash picket” outside Frontier headquarters during the airline’s Board of Directors meeting was also a success.
Social media and paid advertising campaigns featuring hawks, bears, owls, and other animals in a nod to the airline’s distinctive livery have attracted tens of thousands of views, likes, and shares. And in July, the pilot group unveiled a 37-foot “Mobile Strike Center” vehicle and took it on a 25-city tour.
Meanwhile, the company has announced bold plans to more than triple the size of the airline, including placing orders for $19 billion worth of new Airbus aircraft. However, plans to take Frontier public stalled in 2017, and pilot leaders question how the airline will attract new hires in light of their industry-low pay rates.
“If our owners can pay market rates for aircraft, they need to accept that they’re going to have to pay market rates for pilots, too,” said Smith. “Frontier’s growth plans won’t get off the ground until we get a new contract with industry-standard pay.”