The J.J. O’Donnell Trophy for Excellence in Political Action is presented to Capt. Alan Christie (Frontier), right, his pilots group’s Master Executive Council chair, during ALPA’s 49th regular Board of Directors meeting in October 2022. Photo: Keith Mellnick
When the Frontier Airlines pilots wanted to call out management for misconduct during their last round of contract negotiations, they used an image of a snarling bear with the reminder, “Don’t Poke the Bear.”
Four years later, the company’s continued misconduct is now prompting pilot leaders to consider unleashing the bear once again.
“Whatever honeymoon period we may have had with management following our last negotiation, and during implementation of a preferential bidding system, is long over,” said Capt. Alan Christie, the pilots’ Master Executive Council (MEC) chair. “Management has disrespected our pilot group, continuously violated our contract, and ignored our efforts to engage constructively.”
Frontier began 2022 with an announcement that many had long anticipated: it was buying rival Spirit Airlines and creating the nation’s largest ultra-low-cost carrier (ULCC). But after months of wrangling, Spirit’s shareholders ultimately approved a higher offer from JetBlue Airways, although the proposed merger still faces approval from federal regulators.
While management was excessively focused on the merger, pilot leaders were growing concerned with management’s conduct, including its operational incompetence, unprecedented mass discipline of pilots related to sick-leave use during COVID, and a lack of credibility and integrity.
The airline closed its Chicago, Ill., domicile without warning, imposed aggressive and unwarranted investigations, and tried to slash costs instead of addressing problems in safety, training, and operations. There are more than 1,000 open grievances, with more being generated each month.
“Pilots are fed up, and many are voting with their feet,” Christie commented. “Our CEO likes to tell Wall Street that we’re actually ‘overstaffed,’ but it’s a sham. Pilots are hired, spend a few years here, and then move on to airlines with better management and more opportunities.”
The pilots who stay, however, are fighting back. In July the MEC launched a “44” campaign as a reminder of the 44 pilots who had faced heavy-handed, unwarranted discipline for calling in sick in December 2021 during the height of the omicron outbreak. Those 44 jobs were saved thanks to aggressive ALPA advocacy, but it was just another reminder of Frontier’s out-of-touch management.
The MEC is also ramping up preparations for opening negotiations on a new contract. The pilots’ 2019 agreement becomes amendable in 2024, and the MEC could choose to open talks as early as this July. The MEC has polled the pilot group, held several in-person events, and is building its Strategic Preparedness and Strike Committee.
“A lot has changed since 2019, and our focus is building upon the improvements we’re seeing in contracts achieved by other ALPA pilot groups,” said Christie.
Less than a decade after joining ALPA in 2016, the Frontier pilots have made an outsized impact on the Association thanks to their unity and advocacy. Capt. Jeff Hicks was elected to an ALPA executive vice president (EVP) position at the 2022 Board of Directors meeting. At the same meeting, the EVP he replaced, Capt. Tyler Hawkins, became the first ULCC pilot ever to be elected an ALPA national officer. Hawkins took office as ALPA’s vice president–administration/secretary on January 1.
The group has also gained a reputation for strong political advocacy. In 2022, the pilots were awarded ALPA’s J.J. O’Donnell Trophy for Excellence in Political Action for an unprecedented fourth year in a row. And two Frontier local councils, Council 167 and Council 169, were recognized with the ALPA-PAC 2022 Key Society Award, given to the 24 ALPA local councils with the highest ALPA-PAC participation.
“We’re proud of our pilots’ contributions to our union, our profession, and our own airline. We’re going to make sure our company recognizes them as well,” Christie remarked.