With landing gear deployed, an ERJ 145 prepares to touch down at Newark Liberty International Airport. (Photo: Wikimedia)
The CommuteAir pilots were in a state of flux for much of 2021, thanks in large part to the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic. Like many fee-for-departure (FFD) airlines, CommuteAir has wrestled with significant turnover due to pilots transitioning to other airlines. Yet, the Cleveland-based airline witnessed significant growth at a time when many of its counterparts have struggled to return to prepandemic performance levels.
This global health crisis also compelled the pilots and management to defer collective bargaining efforts, but talks resumed as the year progressed.
“We began negotiations in September 2019 and continued until March 2020, when the pandemic was declared,” remarked Capt. Earl Blowers, the pilot group’s Master Executive Council (MEC) chair. The pilots and management agreed to take a bargaining hiatus until June 2021 when talks resumed. “Much of the negotiations have been completed. We’re now working on the heart of our contract—scheduling and compensation,” Blowers observed, noting that both parties have been able to proceed without the need for mediation.
The bargaining break notwithstanding, the progress of negotiations may be attributed, in part, to the positive rapport the pilots have established with management. “We have a relationship with the management team that, so far, is working well,” remarked Blowers. While the carrier has experienced some growing pains, the two sides have been able to openly discuss their concerns and generally reach amicable solutions.
Originally a Beechcraft 1900D operator that later transitioned to Bombardier Dash 8-200/-300s, CommuteAir began flying ERJ 145s for United Express in July 2016. In 2020, United changed its FFD network strategy and opted to consolidate its ERJ 145 flying at CommuteAir.
Since then, the airline has witnessed a significant expansion in its operation. New city pairings were introduced, CommuteAir’s fleet grew to 76 aircraft (although only 65 airplanes are currently utilized), and in March 2021, the airline opened what would become its third hub at Denver International Airport.
This expansion only magnified CommuteAir’s continued struggles with pilot retention. Many CommuteAir pilots opt to transition to mainline, all-cargo, and low-cost carriers with larger aircraft as soon as possible, creating staffing challenges for both the FFD airline and its pilot group. “We hired more than 300 pilots throughout 2021, but on paper we only grew by about 200 pilots with this attrition,” Blowers said.
The airline participates in United Airlines’ Aviate program, which facilitates career-progression opportunities for CommuteAir pilots.
“When mainline carriers are hiring, our pilots don’t tend to stay here for very long,” Blowers acknowledged. “Most view CommuteAir as a steppingstone, and, consequently, union involvement tends to slow down. However, when hiring opportunities at these carriers let up, our pilots realize they could be with CommuteAir for a while and that’s when we see increased union participation. It’s cyclical.”
This recent turnover has made it particularly difficult to maintain the pilot group’s leadership and committee structure. “That’s the big challenge,” noted Blowers. “As a result, a lot of our committees contain really new individuals.”
To address pilot attrition, management has opted to participate in the controversial E-3 specialty occupation visa program. Australian pilots who successfully complete the airline’s interview process and are eligible for the visa can fly for CommuteAir for two years, with the possibility of an extension. The U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services Administrative Appeals Office has repeatedly found that airline pilot positions aren’t a specialty occupation, and ALPA continues to raise concerns about the misuse of this visa program. Australian pilots on the E-3 visa program at CommuteAir are fully represented by ALPA under the Railway Labor Act.
“Going into the new year, we’re optimistic that we’ll secure a contract that our pilots deserve, and we’ll continue to help our company grow and thrive,” Blowers observed.