Sun Country is one of the largest occupants of Minneapolis–St. Paul International Airport’s Terminal 2.
Following up on the success of their 2015 contract negotiations, the pilots of Sun Country Airlines spent 2016 improving their union operations on all levels: recruiting new volunteers, strengthening their committee structure, welcoming new-hire pilots, and initiating new programs.
Finally having industry-standard pay and benefits has lent stability to Sun Country, just as pilots accurately predicted as they fought for a new contract after more than four years of negotiations. Relations with management had improved for a time but has hit some trouble spots lately, as the airline adapts to new infrastructure and recruits new pilots to fuel its expansion plans.
“After a hopeful start to 2016, we’ve recently been experiencing a different attitude with management,” said Capt. Brian Roseen, the pilot’s Master Executive Council (MEC) chairman. “The company has hired new management staff, and much of the new corporate structure has made it more difficult to address and resolve pilot issues. We hope that management will begin to demonstrate a desire to work with us again to grow and improve our airline’s operations.”
Pilots ratified their new five-year agreement in October 2015 by an 87 percent margin, with 94 percent of the group’s 250 members casting ballots. The deal included 20 to 30 percent pay increases on the November 1 signing date, with additional across-the-board raises totaling 21.5 percent over the remaining four years of the contract. Other compensation was also increased, as well as company retirement contributions.
After conducting contract education in the closing months of 2015, the MEC opened the new year by announcing that the FAA had approved their joint Flight Operations Quality Assurance (FOQA) program. While FOQA is a common safety element at many other airlines, the MEC had withdrawn its support from Sun Country’s program in 2015, fearing it could be used punitively, but discussions on improving FOQA have resumed.
At the start of 2016, the company and the pilots began holding monthly meetings to exchange ideas and concerns, and management began inviting MEC committee chairmen to participate in relevant meetings. Management also agreed to increase the amount of time that the MEC is allotted to meet with new-hire pilots during initial training.
At midyear, the MEC unveiled a new Community Involvement Committee, a joint union-company committee, to encourage pilots to support philanthropy in the Minneapolis, Minn., area. The committee formalizes what had previously been ad-hoc volunteer programs by individual pilots, including Roseen, who had personally raised $200,000 to build a specially equipped baseball field for disabled children.
The committee’s first event was to recruit Sun Country pilots to assist young players in the Miracle League youth baseball program. It also supported Girls in Aviation Day at a local airport. The committee plans to sponsor four events per year and to provide immediate disaster response for local emergencies.
Sun Country, the third-largest carrier at Minneapolis–St. Paul International Airport, is looking to create a niche not as a low-cost airline, but as what CEO Zarir Erani refers to as a “value based” carrier for Minnesota and the Midwest. But a potential roadblock is pilot recruitment. Pilot hiring, stagnant when Sun Country was among the worst-paying B-737 operators nationwide, picked up for a while at the beginning of 2016. Unfortunately, like other regional carriers, the airline is now back to having difficulty filling its new-hire classes.
“Our first-year pay is now lower than what some of the regionals are paying, and we still require training contracts,” Roseen noted. “We hope that management will take our advice and eliminate the contracts to make the airline more desirable to pilots who may be attracted by the ability to live in base in Minneapolis.”