As the pilots of CommutAir learned in 2015, great things can happen when management is motivated to bargain quickly.

In near record time, a little more than two months after opening talks in September 2015, the Master Executive Council's (MEC) pilot negotiators completed negotiations on a new four-year contract. The collective bargaining agreement took effect on December 1, four years to the day after CommutAir celebrated its first-ever pilot contract on Dec. 1, 2011.

That first contract took three years to hammer out, but there’s a world of difference between bargaining in 2008 and 2015, according to Capt. John Bassett, the pilots’ MEC chairman.

“The regional airline environment is changing rapidly now, and every fee-for-departure airline is scrambling to attract new pilots. Our owners recognized that new reality; and combined with excellent preparation by our Negotiating Committee, the result was a very pilot-friendly contract,” Bassett said.

The pilots overwhelmingly ratified the new contract after two quick weeks of road shows and crew room visits at pilot bases in Dulles, Va., and Newark, N.J. Eighty-two percent of eligible pilots cast ballots; of those voting, 90 percent voted in favor of the agreement.

The 2015 contract builds on a letter of agreement (LOA) ratified in 2014 that increased new-hire pay and added industry-leading commuter language. But even with the LOA, CommutAir was having great difficulty retaining pilots; the pilot group had shrunk by 25 percent in recent years, with 180 pilots on the seniority list in 2015, down from a high of 240 pilots the year before.

The new contract boosts pay for the entire group, with increases as high as 20 percent for first officers and 8–12 percent for captains, plus across-the-board increases in each year of the agreement. It also adds a new company match for retirement contributions and lowers pilot health-care premiums.

The airline’s motivation to reach a quick deal became clearer in early November, when CommutAir announced that United Airlines was adding 40 Embraer ERJ 145 regional jets to the carrier’s fleet of 22 Dash 8-Q200/300 turboprops. The first ERJ arrived on the property in late November, and the jets are expected to enter service in April of this year.

“The contract was written to reflect the new aircraft that are coming,” Bassett said. “We negotiated new rates for the jets, and also gave the company some contractual relief in the first two years of the agreement to make the new aircraft transition easier.”

The airline has begun training 14 Dash 8 captains as the “initial cadre” of ERJ crews who will complete FAA certification requirements. Thereafter, Dash 8 pilots can move to the ERJ in accordance with their seniority and new contractual bidding rules. New-hire pilots will be assigned to either the turboprops or the jets based on company needs.

CommutAir’s agreement with United also includes a first-ever career-progression program, whereby CommutAir pilots will have a path to jobs at the mainline if they meet United’s hiring standards and other conditions. When combined with the pilot-training agreements CommutAir has in place with Kent State University and several other aviation programs, the career-progression program potentially gives would-be aviators a direct path from the classroom to an eventual seat on a United flight deck.

“We hope the combination of higher pay, better benefits, rapid upgrades, and the United career-progression program will help us rapidly ramp up hiring and enable us to staff the new aircraft,” Bassett said. “Turboprop and jet pilots are equally eligible for the career-progression program, so everyone on the property will have an opportunity with the mainline regardless of what they fly.” 

CommutAir pilots F/O Ken Woods and Capt. Tracie Wood - ALPA
F/O Ken Woods (left) and Capt. Tracie Wood.
Commut Air pilots F/O Joey Lichon, Flight Attendant Radha Dutt, and Capt. Michael Collins - ALPA
From left, F/O Joey Lichon, Flight Attendant Radha Dutt, and Capt. Michael Collins, the pilots’ Negotiating Committee chairman, at Newark Liberty International Airport.