For Compass Airlines pilots, 2015 could be considered a “rebuilding year”—one of uncertainty and transition, but one with the promise of exciting new opportunities.

The pilot group has grown rapidly thanks to new aircraft and a new agreement with American Airlines. At the same time, hundreds of its most senior pilots have left via a flow-through agreement with Delta Air Lines. The result has been severe growing pains that compelled ALPA’s Executive Council to put the pilot group into custodianship in November 2015 because the Compass Master Executive Council (MEC) couldn’t recruit, elect, and retain leaders fast enough to replace those who were leaving. Typically ALPA places a pilot group into custodianship because the group’s airline has shut down.

“We’ve had an almost complete turnover of our group in the past two to three years as pilots have flowed through to Delta and new pilots have been hired,” explained MEC Chairman Capt. Anthony Zerafa, who until recently was the only remaining member on the three-member MEC. “We’ve grown to 700 pilots, but more than half are still on probation.”

That was a challenge, Zerafa said, because probationary pilots can’t vote in union elections. And the fact that the MEC uses a seniority block representation system has exacerbated the problem.

“Seniority blocks work great at airlines with a single pilot base or stable hiring, but less so when there’s a lot of turnover as we’ve had here,” Zerafa noted. “We’re in a situation where there’re huge numbers of new-hire pilots coming into the junior block, but fewer and fewer pilots are in the senior blocks—so keeping continuity has been very challenging.”

ALPA national had authorized the MEC to expand to five block representatives once the group reached 700 nonprobationary pilots, but Zerafa and fellow Compass custodian Capt. Paul Stuart (Alaska) said the pilots may seek to change their representation method sometime in 2016. The pilots’ three existing seniority blocks were realigned in January, and a Zerafa and two new representatives were elected in April. With the MEC back at full strength, the Executive Council removed Compass from custodianship soon after.

Powering the airline’s growth has been a new agreement with American Airlines last year that added a fleet of 20 new American Eagle ERJ 175s. The airline had previously only flown as a Delta Connection carrier, and the addition of a new partner led to many changes, including the closure of Compass’s Detroit, Mich., domicile and the opening of a new pilot base in Seattle, Wash.

Like other fee-for-departure airlines, Compass has had difficulty recruiting new pilots. Its response has been to offer a $10,000 signing bonus to new first officers, as well as tuition reimbursement for pilots who become flight instructors at company-approved flight schools. Unfortunately, the airline unilaterally instituted the bonuses without negotiating with the pilots, forcing them to dispute the bonus program. In November, the parties were able to settle that dispute and resolve a number of other outstanding grievances and issues. The pilots and the company agreed to increases in first-year pay, the ability to further raise first-year pay with increases in other pay steps at certain trigger points, in-base hotels for all pilots four times per month, stable medical insurance premiums for one year, and a number of other smaller items.

Even while Compass was in custodianship, the pilot group has been well served by its cadre of committee volunteers. Junior pilots have swelled the volunteer ranks, building an infrastructure that bodes well for the future.

“Our volunteers have been the glue that’s held the group together this past year,” Zerafa said. “We expected growing pains, and we’ve had them, but the future looks very bright for us.”

Will Outlaw’s first flight as a captain operating a Compass E170 - ALPA
Will Outlaw’s first flight as a captain, operating a Compass E170 at Chicago Midway International Airport.