U.S. Airline Pilots Are More Than Ready for the Comeback

Truly, this has been a monumental effort. Over the last three years, the U.S. government, American taxpayers, airline labor, and company managements have risen to the challenge of the pandemic. We have reached out and worked together—and we saved our industry. We were ready for the comeback!


But right now, as passengers return to the skies, and after securing federal aid on a scale no other industry received, some airlines’ failure to plan for recovery threatens to cost our industry the comeback. ALPA is not about to let that happen.


Let me be clear: ALPA pilots and other aviation workers got our industry to this side of the pandemic. When COVID-19 struck, our members immediately went full throttle into driving the public health response, protecting aviation workers and jobs, and preparing our industry to seize the opportunity when recovery came.


As we are all aware, pilots put themselves and their families at risk flying personnel and equipment and keeping supply chains moving. When airline management asked, thousands of our members raised their hands to voluntarily retire or work reduced schedules. Our union bargained hundreds of agreements to help our companies withstand the blow caused by the drastic drop in demand.


Equally important, working together with the AFL-CIO, ALPA pilots sent messages to lawmakers. Hundreds of thousands of them. These Calls to Action were instrumental in the decision by Congress to pass 63 billion dollars in federal aid for our companies.


Thanks to the historic labor protections we made possible, the Payroll Support Program was expressly designed to enable airlines to keep pilots and other employees trained and ready to fly.


Yet, despite the enormous lift that government and labor made to help the airlines—and the companies’ own commitment to use the taxpayer relief to be ready for recovery—flight delays and cancellations are escalating. They have spiked nearly 65 percent since this time two years ago.


ALPA is pulling no punches in calling out those airlines that received billions in American taxpayer support to be ready to fly but have instead failed to train and requalify their workforce.


For example, in a letter to Transportation Secretary Buttigieg, I commended the DOT for ensuring that SkyWest Airlines, which has received nearly $2 billion in taxpayer subsidies over the past several years, delivers on its pledge to provide air service for America’s small communities.


Like SkyWest, Alaska received $2.3 billion from U.S. taxpayers to be ready for the recovery. For years, Alaska pilots have warned that aviators would choose to fly for other airlines because of the substandard pilot contract at Alaska. It seems their management has not properly managed their recovery. They are now even admitting they failed to recognize they would have an inadequate number of pilots available to fly in April and May. But Alaska’s management has still failed to make the connection that a strong union contract attracts a strong union workforce. After three years with little movement at the bargaining table, our national union is supporting Alaska pilots as they vote to authorize a strike.


Unfortunately, it’s the same story for too many other airlines. The companies held their hands out to accept billions in American taxpayer subsidies, which Congress rightly provided to save the industry. However, skyrocketing flight delays and cancellations show that some airlines haven’t used the funds as intended.


In fact, company managements have deliberately put pilots and other workers on the shelf and held off on training to save money. Now, it is passengers who are paying the price.


In desperation, airline representatives have resorted to distorting the facts about pilot supply in a frenzied scramble to distract passengers, investors, and Congress from their failure to plan. They have mismanaged their own training schedules and are now claiming that they can’t hire enough pilots.


The numbers leave no doubt that today, there are more than enough pilots in the United States to meet demand. In fact, many U.S. airlines have more pilots, carry less net debt, and operate at greater domestic capacity levels now than they did in 2019.


Airlines that offer a competitive career for pilots have no problem finding applicants—their CEOs have affirmed this truth, with one recently stating that his airline has thousands of qualified applicants on file.


Despite the reality, some airline representatives continue to spread mistruths to the flying public and in the halls of Congress. ALPA is fighting back with the facts at every opportunity.


The plain truth is that airline managements should take responsibility for their business decisions to cut or reduce service to less-profitable markets. Instead, they are making excuses that aren’t supported in fact or, far worse, calling for regulation rollbacks that would threaten safety.


This is adapted from Capt. DePete’s remarks to the ALPA Executive Board on May 18, 2022.


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