Hawaiian Pilots
Capt. Randy Taintor, front, the pilot group’s Strike Preparedness Committee chairman, walks the picket line in Honolulu, Hawaii.

In the Hawaiian language, the word “pono” means righteousness or doing the right thing. As 2016 came to a close, resolute Hawaiian Airlines pilots were demanding pono from their management team, and warning future passengers that their upcoming travel could be at risk if pilots can’t reach an agreement with the company on a new contract. Update: Feb. 13, 2017: Hawaiian Airlines Pilots Reach Tentative Contract Agreement with Management.

Even as the airline enjoys one of the highest profit margins in the industry, the company insists that, as a “leisure” carrier, pilots must work for less than other pilots, despite growing competition for aviators and recent jumps in pilot compensation at Hawaiian’s key competitors.

“Our CEO is delusional. He believes we will accept a contract inferior to other professional pilots and wait another year to get it,” said Capt. Hoon Lee, the pilots’ Master Executive Council (MEC) chairman. “The only thing that seems to have an effect on him is the threat of a looming work stoppage.”

Hawaiian reported record earnings in 2015; and through the third quarter of 2016, the company’s results were even better. Over the last five years, the company has boosted its share price by more than 500 percent and more recently is one of the few airlines to improve its PRASM (passenger revenue per available seat mile) numbers.

The pilots and the company began talks on a new contract in May 2015. The pilots’ goal was to conduct a streamlined negotiation with a limited number of issues in order to achieve an agreement by the contract amendable date of Sept. 14, 2016. The company, however, had other ideas.

Management sought dozens of changes—including concessionary proposals that it couldn’t achieve during the carrier’s 2005 bankruptcy. Mediation began shortly after the contract became amendable, and by June 2016 the two sides were still so far apart that Capt. Tim Canoll, ALPA’s president, requested the pilots be released from mediation.

In August, Linda Puchala, chairman of the National Mediation Board (NMB), began attending mediation sessions. In November, the NMB announced that further sessions wouldn’t be productive and recessed talks to consider disposition of the case.

In December, Hawaiian pilots surprised management by picketing the company’s Investor Day presentations in New York City and by meeting with investors and analysts in attendance that day. At the same time, the MEC launched a new website, social media campaign, and online ad buys that have gotten millions of views and thousands of clicks and shares.

Hawaiian’s almost 650 pilots have proven they’re fully committed to striking if they’re legally allowed to do so. Ninety-nine percent of the pilot group has voted in favor of a strike, and hundreds of pilots have shown their solidarity at informational picketing events in Honolulu, Hawaii, in March, May, and July. Armed with a $2 million grant from ALPA’s Major Contingency Fund, the pilots’ Strike Preparedness Committee has had a strike operations center open in Honolulu since September.

Hawaiian will need to hire hundreds of new pilots over the next few years to replace retiring pilots and crew the new Airbus 321neos that are scheduled to arrive late in 2017. Without pay increases to keep pace with competitors who face the same hiring challenges, the MEC warns that Hawaiian will find it increasingly difficult to attract new hires, especially with Hawaii’s high cost of living.

“There’s no logical reason why our CEO refuses to compensate Hawaiian’s pilots at the same level as our counterparts at other airlines who fly the same aircraft on the same routes,” Lee said. “The company pays market rates for aircraft, fuel, and gates; so particularly in a time of record profits, the airline will also have to pay market rates for its pilots.”