Sun Country’s fleet of 30 B-737NGs, with more aircraft leased seasonally, now includes 12 Amazon B-737BCF freighters.
With the pilot group’s contract amendable on Oct. 31, 2020, and the expectation that bargaining would begin early, the pilots’ Master Executive Council (MEC) kicked off last year focused on preparing for Section 6 negotiations. The company began 2020 considering a new ownership structure, including potentially offering shares to the public.
MEC leaders were ready to negotiate a modern contract to reflect the newly designed, modern airline Sun Country has transformed into over the last few years, including achieving historic profits. They expanded their committee structure, which allowed volunteers to get up to speed before bargaining, reinvigorated the Pilot-to-Pilot program with an emphasis on contract education, and were well under way with strategic planning and a pilot survey.
Then came March, and with it the World Health Organization’s announcement of the COVID-19 pandemic.
With their earlier plans delayed, the MEC and the company set to work solving problems in a spirit of cooperation designed to ensure they would both emerge from the crisis to again seek their previous goals. As travel demand plummeted and furloughs seemed imminent, the MEC and the Negotiating Committee worked tirelessly with the company to come up with solutions that would protect the pilots while also keeping the airline afloat. In early April, the Negotiating Committee announced it had reached an agreement with the company on a program to offer voluntary, paid leaves—enhanced company leaves (ECLs)—for the five-month period of May through September.
The ECL program, the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act, and the late-April scheduled start of cargo flying for Amazon provided a much-needed lifeline for Sun Country that aided in mitigating furloughs.
As the fall approached, things were looking up. The airline’s diverse flying, which includes commercial, military, charter, and cargo, got a boost when the company booked several Major League Soccer charters. Commercial demand also increased slightly, and the airline took its last few aircraft out of short-term storage. In late fall, the company announced it was hiring and scheduled training classes for November and December.
Though the ECL program expired on October 1, the Negotiating Committee worked with the company on an arrangement that allows a limited number of hardship leaves for pilots with underlying health issues or who experience other difficulties related to COVID-19. The arrangement also allows those pilots to continue accruing seniority and longevity and to retain all other benefits to which they’re entitled.
The diversity of Sun Country’s business put the MEC in a better position relative to many other airlines regarding negotiations. While the MEC didn’t serve a Section 6 opener as had been expected, it saw significant opportunities to work with the company to negotiate mutually beneficial solutions to the nonstop issues that arose throughout the second half of 2020.
While Sun Country’s future is growing brighter as the country and the aviation industry seek to edge out from under the pandemic’s effects, there are significant challenges ahead for the pilots. They continue to work under an outdated contract that doesn’t suit the airline’s current business model, and their pay rates, retirement contributions, commuter policies, and work rules lag behind the industry standard.
Pay is still among the lowest in the industry for narrowbody pilots, with captain pay topping out at $202 per hour after 14 years, and first officer pay that starts at $52 per hour and tops out at $135 per hour.
“The rules in the current contract were written for an airline that no longer exists. Both sides will benefit from a modern pilot contract with modern terms,” said Capt. Brian Lethert, the pilots’ MEC chair.