Air Wisconsin

For Air Wisconsin pilots, 2015 ended in much the same way that it began—with hope but also uncertainty. The airline gained a new lease on life thanks to a contract extension with its sole mainline partner, but pilots strongly rejected a tentative contract agreement, leaving future negotiations in limbo.

In late April, Air Wisconsin senior management personnel notified employees that they had extended the carrier’s relationship with American Airlines for an additional two years. The jet services agreement with American had been scheduled to conclude at the end of 2015, leaving the regional carrier without a mainline partner.

“The pilot group and our fellow Air Wisconsin employees were able to exhale a bit after details of the extension were released. It gave us some clarity, stability, and time. It gave everyone two more years to put their personal plans in motion,” said Capt. Chris Suhs, the pilots’ Master Executive Council (MEC) chairman.

Then in August, the pilots and the company reached a tentative contract agreement after more than five years of negotiations. The agreement maintained the pilots’ status as the highest-paid 50-seat jet pilots in the country; kept them at or near the top of their peers in retirement, vacation, and other benefits; and also improved their per diem.

Pilot leaders unanimously endorsed the agreement, and the MEC mounted a month-long information campaign, with multiple road shows, crew room visits, and Family Awareness dinners throughout the system.

But the pilots decided the agreement didn’t have enough added value, especially with the industry influx and the pilot pay shortage becoming more apparent. Sixty-seven percent of the pilots voting rejected the agreement.

“Our negotiators did an outstanding job of blocking management’s ongoing attempts to seek concessions from us at every turn. The MEC was able to put a sum-positive contract in front of the pilots, but were unable to gain the kinds of major increases pilots are expecting to see in the current environment,” Suhs said. “We got the message, and hopefully Air Wisconsin management has gotten the message, too. Our pilots expect a larger investment in this pilot group and the future of this company.”

Meanwhile, the MEC’s slogan, “Do I Have a Future Here?” remains relevant as the clock ticks toward 2018, when the contract extension with American comes to an end. Not unlike other fee-for-departure carriers, more pilots are leaving Air Wisconsin than are being hired. Slowing that outflow will help all of the airline’s stakeholders as it continues to look for opportunities to grow.

Despite the attrition, the pilot group continues to live up to its motto of “Adunasse Excellentiam” (Unified Excellence). The MEC has adopted a “next-man-up” strategy and has been successful in recruiting new volunteers to continue the high standard of service the pilot group has become accustomed to. Committees are fully staffed, and the MEC has successfully weathered frequent leadership changes as elected representatives and officers move on to other airlines.

During the past year, the pilots established a new Community Involvement Committee, which has built a volunteer network in each of the airline’s pilot domiciles and has participated in charity events and community service projects in Washington, D.C.; Philadelphia, Pa.; and Norfolk and Virginia Beach, Va. They also participated, and continue to participate, in ALPA-PAC and ALPA’s legislative Calls to Action. To commemorate Air Wisconsin’s 50th anniversary, the pilots sponsored an all-employee luncheon at the airline’s headquarters in Appleton, Wisc.

As Air Wisconsin begins its next half century, the pilots hope their airline’s reputation for providing safe and reliable service will lead to more business, especially now that American Airlines has completed its merger with US Airways. “We’ve been a US Airways carrier for more than a decade, and as we transition from US Airways Express to American Eagle, we’re looking forward to opportunities for growth and hope that Air Wisconsin management can provide another 50 years of stable employment for the men and women who have made this airline great and who will continue to make it a great airline for years to come,” Suhs said. 

Air Wisconsin pilots - ALPA
Capt. Jeff Pruett, left, the pilots’ former Master Executive Council vice chairman, and Capt. Carl Fleming, Council 51 chairman, greet employees at the airline’s 50th anniversary luncheon.