Sun Country

Unity, strategic planning, and robust two-way communications can solve a lot of problems and produce lots of progress. Just ask the Sun Country pilots.

After being in negotiations for five years, and with talks at a standstill, the pilots ended 2015 with a new contract that’s leaps and bounds ahead of their years-old, bankruptcy-era agreement.

“Our goal from the outset was to negotiate a contract that clearly established us among our fellow pilots flying B-737s and A320s. We’ve achieved that goal and can finally put the past behind us and look forward,” said Capt. Brian Roseen, the pilots’ Master Executive Council (MEC) chairman.

The pilots ratified the new five-year agreement in late October by an 87 percent margin, with 94 percent of the group’s 250 members casting ballots. The deal included 20 to 30 percent pay increases on the November 1 signing date, with additional across-the-board raises totaling 21.5 percent during the remaining four years of the contract. Other compensation-related items were also increased, including deadhead pay and company retirement contributions.

“The 87 percent approval was outstanding, and the 94 percent participation was even better. But the number that really got us to where we needed to be was 100—that is, the 100 percent of the pilots who approved our strike vote,” Roseen explained.

It was that unanimous strike vote, announced at a packed local council meeting in February, that gave the MEC and the Negotiating Committee the clout they needed to convince management that the entire pilot group, not just a handful of pilots, was demanding industry-standard wages and was willing to do as much as the law allowed to get them.

In response, management threatened to shut down the airline, a strategic misstep that generated massive negative publicity and intense news media attention in the airline’s hometown of Minneapolis, Minn. The MEC generated even more public awareness with a successful informational picket in late April at Minneapolis–St. Paul International Airport.

“One of the most powerful tools the Railway Labor Act allows labor is the ability to tell our story through the news media. Our unity showed the public that we were unified and committed to our cause, and the analysis that ALPA’s Economic &Financial Analysis Department provided proved that our requests were reasonable. This gave us all the credibility we needed,” said Roseen.

Negotiations intensified over the summer after the company proposed its “first, last, and final” offer, which the pilots rejected categorically. Having been in federal mediation since 2012, ALPA successfully petitioned the National Mediation Board (NMB) to begin holding mediation sessions at its Washington, D.C., headquarters. At the same time, the pilots’ Strategic Preparedness Committee began laying the groundwork for a potential strike. Capt. Tim Canoll, ALPA’s president, asked the NMB in July to release the pilots from mediation, and by mid-September pilot negotiators believed they had reached an impasse.

But in late September, thanks to nonstop intervention by the NMB and movement by both sides, the parties reached a tentative agreement that resulted in the contract that was signed a month later (see “Earning Their Place in the Sun,” December 2015).

Over the last few months, the union and management have worked together to implement the new agreement. The airline, which previously was having trouble attracting and retaining new pilots, has seen an uptick in hiring. Passenger bookings are up, and the carrier continues to expand, including adding new service from Minneapolis to Denver, Colo., later this year. Sun Country also became the first U.S. airline to fly direct from New York, N.Y., to Cuba last March when the U.S. resumed diplomatic relations with the country after more than 50 years.

“We’re optimistic,” Roseen said. “We’re rebuilding our relationship with management and our owners and now want to focus our attention on helping our airline grow and compete.” 

Sun Country Capt. Brian Roseen and the pilots’ Master Executive Council chairman Marty Davis - ALPA
Capt. Brian Roseen, left, the pilots’ Master Executive Council chairman, and Marty Davis, chairman of Sun Country Airlines, shake hands following the contract-signing ceremony in Minneapolis, Minn.