Houston, Tex.-based F/O Victor Molitor in the cockpit of an ExpressJet E145.

While 2018 ended on a high note for ExpressJet pilots with the ratification of the group’s first contract since 2004, the announcement of the company’s purchase, and an award to fly 25 factory-new E175s for United, 2019 turned into a mixed bag of operational highs and record-low pilot morale as ExpressJet struggled to turn around an operation that had been in decline for several years.

In January 2019, ExpressJet was sold by SkyWest, Inc. to ManaAir, LLC, of which United Airlines owns a minority share. In the midst of the purchase, the company worked feverishly to add the E175 to its operating certificate, a significant undertaking that was completed in just a few months. The E175 is the first new aircraft type operated by ExpressJet since the introduction of the E145 in the early 2000s. The company began taking deliveries of the new aircraft in May.

Both the purchase of ExpressJet and the addition of E175s to the airline’s fleet were made possible by the pilots’ ratifying Contract 2018, which was completed in only 45 days at the behest of the company. That short bargaining window didn’t leave time to negotiate all areas of the contract, so the ExpressJet Master Executive Council (MEC) and management agreed to the Letter 2 addendum to the contract, which contained the company’s promise to return to the table to complete negotiations shortly after the purchase of ExpressJet was finalized.

“The addition of dual-class aircraft to the ExpressJet fleet is a milestone we’d been striving to achieve for some time,” said Capt. Joe Mauro, the pilots’ MEC chair. “However, we were very clear with management that the addition of new airplanes wouldn’t distract us from holding the company to the promise it made in Letter 2 to continue to improve areas in our contract that are deficient.”

In early 2019, shortly after the purchase was complete, MEC negotiators began to meet with management to discuss Letter 2. It quickly became apparent that ExpressJet’s new management didn’t intend to take Letter 2 talks seriously, and little progress was made despite several meetings.

To fully support the negotiations and educate the pilot group on Letter 2, the MEC developed its “The Deal’s Not Done” campaign, officially launching the effort in June to coincide with the entry of ExpressJet’s first E175 into commercial service. As part of The Deal’s Not Done campaign, the MEC’s Communications, Negotiations, Strategic Preparedness and Strike, and Pilot-to-Pilot Committees worked to create messaging opportunities through the use of several tools including lanyards, badge backers, luggage accessories, and a supporting website. These tactics helped to unify and educate the pilots on the status of Letter 2 negotiations.

Negotiations progressed at a sluggish pace through the summer, while pilots endured a record number of rolled days off and near-constant trip reassignments that fueled high rates of attrition. After company recruiters began highlighting inaccurate information to attract more new-hire pilots, the MEC shifted its internal The Deal’s Not Done campaign to external markets to educate prospective pilots on what life at ExpressJet is really like.

“Our operation began a rapid decline once the purchase of ExpressJet was complete and the company began resorting to using questionable methods to attract new-hire pilots,” said Mauro. “When new hires began telling us they were misled by recruiters, we had no choice but to launch a campaign that effectively informed potential pilots who might consider flying for ExpressJet what working here is really like.”

As the Letter 2 talks continued, United Airlines announced its new Aviate program in October, designed to serve as a pathway to United for United Express pilots and as a replacement for the now-defunct Career Path Program. ExpressJet pilots began interviewing through the program in late 2019, and qualified candidates will begin to progress to United in the second quarter of 2020.

“This pilot group does face some unique challenges in our ongoing goal to finish negotiations,” acknowledged Mauro, “but I’m confident we’re positioned to succeed.”