The path toward a joint collective bargaining agreement (JCBA) has proven difficult following the merger of Atlantic Southeast and ExpressJet. After five years of unsuccessful negotiations, the Atlantic Southeast and ExpressJet Master Executive Councils (MEC) agreed with management to negotiate improvements to their respective contracts since the carrier’s management refused to meet the combined pilot group’s needs under a JCBA. In October 2015, the parties began efforts to modify their current transition and process agreement by agreeing to separate contract extension talks followed by a resumption of JCBA negotiations sometime in the future once the airline returns to profitability.
Despite the tenuous nature of negotiations, the pilots have maintained unprecedented professionalism. Although the airline has faced a fleet reduction, a shrinking seniority list, and recruiting difficulties due to the rapidly evolving pilot shortage, its on-time departure, arrival, and completion factor metrics have constantly ranked among the top of the airline’s regional competitors. As a result, ExpressJet management has expressed its appreciation to the pilots for their hard work and the quality of service they provide the airline’s partners.
The MEC has played a significant role in helping management find areas to enhance operational efficiency, which resulted in the airline’s increased productivity and the pilots’ improved quality of life. Following the pilots’ rejection of the tentative JCBA in 2013, ExpressJet management not only underwent changes in personnel, but also implemented many operational improvements. In October 2015, the airline began distributing electronic flight bags to the combined ExpressJet pilot group. Shortly thereafter, the Atlantic Southeast MEC and the company agreed to Letter of Agreement (LOA) 14, which was ratified by 87 percent of the voting pilots. That agreement requires the company to upgrade a specified number of first officers every month and allows newly upgraded captains to fly as first officers, thereby acting as a staffing buffer in months when the airline doesn’t have enough qualified first officers. The LOA also contains many other quality-of-life and reserve-rule improvements.
The professional relationships ExpressJet management and the MEC officers have built over time have brought about improvements to the airline. Their relationships have existed for years, and “MEC officers have always fostered an open-door policy with our management team,” said Capt. Tony Middendorff, the pilots’ MEC chairman. “The relationship between the MEC and ExpressJet management is as good as anyone could hope, considering one represents labor and the other management.”
This policy is not just limited to management—it also applies to the pilots. The MEC has worked hard to facilitate an open-door relationship. Middendorff personally hosts lunch meetings with pilots who are in Atlanta, Ga., for annual recurrent training. His goal for the MEC is to be visible, approachable, and connected to the pilots on the line. Additionally, the MEC has a cohesive comradery. “The MEC office, from the support staff to the officers, committee members, and other volunteers, is a collection of talented and dedicated people,” said Middendorff. “It’s a great place because of all the good people, and that, in turn, produces a better result. There’s a feeling of being part of the team here.”
As with every regional airline in this constantly changing environment, recruiting new first officers remains challenging. The MEC is currently in negotiations for a contract extension with pay increases, quality-of-life gains, and other improvements. However, achieving continued contractual gains is difficult when the current agreement is already near an industry-leading level.
With new first officer pay increases and continued operational improvement, the MEC is cautiously optimistic about the future. Reflecting on the progress that’s been made, Middendorff acknowledged, “I have held many roles, both personally and professionally. Being a pilot is the best job I’ve ever had, and being elected to lead our pilot group as MEC chairman is, by far, the most honorable.”
There’s no doubt that fee-for-departure airlines are facing challenging times due to the pilot pay shortage and recruitment challenges, which are expected to continue as new pilots look for the next best thing in first-year pay and/or a signing bonus. Unfortunately, an excellent training department, quality-of-life protections, and consistent, reliable service are often overlooked.