F/O Scott Brice in the cockpit.
As one of ALPA’s newest pilot groups, Frontier pilots are banking on combining the Association’s resources with their collective solidarity to successfully replace their bankruptcy contract with a new, industry-competitive agreement. The carrier’s outstanding profit margins and planned fleet growth point to a bright future—but only if the company can foster a more constructive relationship with its employees.
Although Frontier’s profits rank near the top of the airline industry, those numbers stand in stark contrast to its operating performance, which is at or near the bottom of the industry.
“As the lowest-paid A320 pilots in the country, our top priority is getting a new contract that is competitive and comparable to that of our peers,” said Capt. Brian Ketchum, the Frontier Master Executive Council's (MEC) former chairman. “Our new hires are paid less than many first officers at fee-for-departure carriers, and our average compensation is half of what a comparable pilot receives at Delta, United, or Southwest.”
Receiving the compensation and quality of life that they deserve was a driving force that led the pilots to approve a merger between the Frontier Airlines Pilots Association (FAPA) and ALPA in June 2016. The merger passed by an overwhelming 93 percent margin. Less than one year before, FAPA signed a service agreement with ALPA to provide expert assistance for the group’s upcoming contract negotiations.
“It was immediately clear that we had made the right decision to retain ALPA once we saw the enormous resources the union brought to bear in support of our negotiators,” said Ketchum. “It was a short step from signing the service agreement to recognizing that we wanted to be full members of the union.”
FAPA’s six-person board of directors transitioned into a nine-member MEC, with three new ALPA councils in Denver, Colo.; Chicago, Ill.; and Orlando, Fla. Several members of the incumbent FAPA board became MEC members and officers, and a full slate of newly elected MEC and Local Executive Council leaders took office in March simultaneously with the opening of contract negotiations.
The beginning of negotiations saw management stalling for months before finally offering an unprecedented proposal to raise rates but create two separate pay scales based on whether a pilot was flying or performing other work, which the pilots strongly objected to. The pilots remain steadfast in their demand for the favorable pay, benefit, job-security, and work-rules patterns that exist for other pilots and are determined to be brought “into the pattern” of contracts at other carriers. The two sides are now in federal mediation.
The airline and the pilots are awaiting an arbitrator’s ruling on whether the company must obey a 2011 letter of agreement in which the pilots sacrificed $55 million in concessions as part of a bankruptcy restructuring. In return, the company agreed to open talks on higher pilot pay when it regained financial stability. But now that the airline is exceptionally profitable, management says “business conditions” prevent it from fulfilling its promise.
After being acquired by Republic Air Holdings in 2009, Frontier was bought in 2013 by Indigo Partners, the same investors that once owned Spirit Airlines. Indigo is transforming Frontier into a Spirit-style ultra-low-cost carrier, has installed former Spirit executive Barry Biffle as the airline’s chief executive, and has plans to more than double Frontier’s fleet and hire 300 new pilots in 2017 alone. Ownership is also planning to take Frontier public with an initial public offering sometime this year.
But to make those plans work, the airline will need pilots—and Ketchum warns that the intensifying market for pilots will make it hard for Frontier to retain even its current crews if the airline’s wages stay stagnant.
“Frontier should be paying close attention to the prevailing industry wage patterns. Our outdated contract offers little to attract new pilots and currently offers equally little incentive for our existing pilot workforce to stay,” he said. “The only way that Frontier can accomplish its growth plan will be to achieve a new pilot contract commensurate with our peers—and to do that as quickly as possible.”