An E145 and a Dash 8-100 at Salisbury–Ocean City–Wicomico Regional Airport in Maryland.
As Piedmont Airlines completes its transition to an all-jet fleet later this year, the carrier’s pilots continue working with management to pursue a business plan of slow but steady growth for the American Airlines Group subsidiary. In 2016, Piedmont began acquiring Embraer E145s while initiating the process of phasing out its previous fleet of Bombardier Dash 8 turboprops. Since then, the airline has parked its Dash 8-100s and plans to retire its remaining Dash 8-300s later this year.
This change in fleet composition has compelled Piedmont to rethink its pilot base structure. The airline opted to close its Harrisburg, Pa., crew base in spring 2017 and its Salisbury, Md., pilot domicile at the end of 2017. The carrier will operate Dash 8-300s out of Roanoke-Blacksburg Regional Airport in southwestern Virginia until sometime this summer when it closes that domicile. At that point, the sole Piedmont pilot base will be Philadelphia International Airport in Pennsylvania. Consequently, ALPA representation for the pilot group is transitioning from multiple councils to a single-council arrangement.
Despite this cutback, Piedmont has nearly 650 pilots—approximately 175 more than it had at this time last year. The airline continues to hire approximately 20 pilots a month, although this growth rate is a bit deceiving. Based on a contractual formula that considers the pilot group size, roughly 55 Piedmont pilots currently flow up to American each year. With retirements and other departures, the growth of the pilot group moving forward is expected to be moderate.
Once the transition to jets is complete, the airline’s fleet count is projected to remain essentially the same. However, the new E145s enable Piedmont to increase the number of passengers it can accommodate and flights it can operate. In addition, the airline is adding new markets to its route structure, which covers the eastern United States and Canada.
“Geographically, we’re becoming a larger airline, but we don’t really have more planes,” said Capt. Bruce Freedman, the pilot group’s Master Executive Council (MEC) chair. “It’s more about what Piedmont can do with jets,” he noted, adding that “it makes for a different style of operation.”
Many of the details of this transformation were ironed out in Letter of Agreement (LOA) 19, signed between the pilots and management in 2015 to address the shift to jets. The LOA extended the duration of the current contract from 2018 to 2024. However, it provides two opportunities—one in 2018 and one in 2021—for the pilots and management to return to the bargaining table to revisit a limited number of contract items. These mini negotiations last 120 days, and either party can request a facilitator. The first round of these talks began in January, and the MEC is working closely with the pilot group’s Negotiating Committee to take full advantage of this opportunity.
Freedman described labor relations at Piedmont as “cordial” and “respectful,” although he would like to have more interaction with management. He noted that the pilot group filed very few grievances last year because the two parties were able to resolve their differences through simple discussions.
With the domicile realignment, the airline has been compelled to make some administrative adjustments. Piedmont assigned two chief pilots to the Philadelphia pilot base to address local labor relations issues. The carrier’s headquarters and executive leadership remain in Salisbury despite the pilot base closure there. For training purposes, Piedmont uses E145 simulators in Charlotte, N.C.; Dallas and Houston, Tex.; and St. Louis, Mo., with a fifth facility in Cincinnati, Ohio, which will become available later this year.
“With all that is happening, our airline needs to be adaptable right now to meet the needs of the operation,” said Freedman. “It’s a constant reassessment of our situation and our place in the scheme of things as part of American Airlines Group and within the industry,” he added.