Closing Ranks: How ALPA Pilot Groups Are Supporting Their Own

By Kevin Cuddihy, Contributing Writer

The minute it became apparent that the COVID-19 pandemic might lead to furloughs, ALPA assembled a network of programs, services, and guidance for pilots to help them prepare—including checklists, webinars, counseling, and more. As Capt. Joe DePete, ALPA’s president, often says, “You can judge an organization by how it comes to the aid of its members in need,” and ALPA has worked tirelessly to bolster its resources for members who’ve been affected by the pandemic.

At the same time, the Association’s master executive councils (MECs)—supported by ALPA’s national committees and backed by the union’s professional staff—were also hard at work exploring a variety of programs designed to lessen the impact of the pandemic on their own pilots.

ALPA’s Furloughed Pilots Support Program (FPSP), which is coordinated by Capt. Drew Everett (Hawaiian), has helped create a number of resources at the national level and has worked with MECs at the local level as well. “This is how the system is supposed to work,” he explained. “We have a national structure with our committees and leadership, but each property has its own layer to address its own unique issues. So we’re able to support the MECs in their work as they focus on the specific needs of their pilots.”

The following are just a few examples of the support MECs have provided to assist their brothers and sisters during this unprecedented time in the airline industry.

Mentorship Programs

The WestJet pilots stood up their Wingman mentorship program in May in anticipation of furloughs. The program pairs active pilots with furloughed members to both help navigate the current situation and to assist with the transition back to active status at some point in the future—all the while providing support and compassion during this rough time.

The program currently has more than 80 volunteers, each assigned a small number of furloughed pilots to contact and to provide support. “The furloughed pilots are thankful to have someone from the union they can reach out to,” explained F/O Adam Harmer (WestJet), the MEC’s vice chair and Wingman program chair. “Whether a pilot has been with WestJet since its inception or was hired in 2020, we’re here to look after all of our members. That so many line pilots have stepped up to help their furloughed sisters and brothers speaks volumes to the professionalism of our pilot group.”

The furloughed pilots are supported via communications from the MEC, the company, and ALPA. “This program wouldn’t exist without the support of ALPA’s FPSP, the WestJet MEC, and, most importantly, our pilot volunteers,” said Harmer.

Delta established a Furlough Support Network within its Membership Committee, chaired by F/O Maggie Eickhoff. “Many pilots involved in the furlough after 9/11 felt like they were somewhat forgotten,” explained Eickhoff, “or stuck in this in-between place of having a union but not being an active pilot. This time around, we want to ensure that our furloughed pilots get the news and information they need and are clued into what’s going on.”

The network aims to provide furloughed pilots with peer-to-peer support from someone who’s previously been in their shoes. “We felt it was important to pair a furloughed pilot with an active pilot who’s been through a furlough before because the active pilot understands exactly what it’s like on the other side of the line,” Eickhoff said.

Thus far the program has more than 100 volunteers, and every furloughed pilot will be assigned to a volunteer. The volunteers will be available to answer questions, guide pilots to ALPA and MEC resources, discuss their own experiences, and provide a friendly ear to listen. “It really highlights what the strength of a union is: its members,” concluded Eickhoff. “We’re all in this together. We know this is an incredibly stressful time and full of unknowns. We want to make sure our pilots are cared for, their basic needs are met, and that no one has to go through this alone.”

PSA launched its Mentor Committee just two years ago, noted Capt. Scott McCormick (PSA), the committee’s chair, but it’s already the largest committee on the property with more than 70 volunteers. “Our volunteers run the gamut from line check airmen all the way down to first officers just off their year of probation,” he said. “So we have someone for everyone to talk to.

“Normally we assign each new hire a mentor when they join the company,” he continued, “so it was easy enough to look at the potential furloughs and assign them back to their mentor to help them work through this process.”

This can mean helping pilots decipher the WARN notice, making sure they’re talking to their spouses about what’s happening, or encouraging them to start planning their next steps in or out of aviation.

The mentors not only help pilots prepare for furlough but will be available after they’ve been furloughed and then during the recall period—when things can happen just as quickly as the furlough. “Without the mentor program,” McCormick observed, “pilots wouldn’t remain connected to PSA during the furlough. They’d be relying on word of mouth and social media to get information. Instead, they’ll be able to maintain regular contact with their mentor, so we’ll still have an active relationship with the pilot throughout it all.”

The Air Wisconsin MEC reactivated its Furlough Support Committee early on, and Capt. Joel Barman (Air Wisconsin) chairs the committee. “He did this for us in 2008 when we had pilots on furlough,” explained Capt. Ken Reinert (Air Wisconsin), his pilot group’s MEC vice chair, “and he’s battle hardened, having dealt with two carrier shutdowns prior to landing here at Air Wisconsin.”

The committee worked with ALPA’s FPSP to learn about the resources available to members and made a concerted effort to reach out to all Air Wisconsin pilots who received a furlough notice. “We want them to know that they won’t be navigating their journey through furlough alone,” said Barman. “It’s our goal to keep every furloughed member in the loop and informed until everyone has returned to active status.”

Preferential Hiring

“Air Transport International has long offered preferential interviewing to ALPA pilots among applicants from Part 121 airlines,” reported Capt. Mike Sterling (Air Transport International), the MEC’s chair, “though the company has reserved the right to hire at its discretion.”

In light of the pandemic, the Air Transport International MEC reached out to the company to request further preference in interviewing. “The company has been very generous in hiring ALPA pilots in the past, and we greatly appreciate it,” said Sterling. “This would be another cooperative effort and an ALPA-positive effort on the property.” Shortly before this issue of Air Line Pilot went to press, the company agreed to give special consideration to ALPA pilots who worked for a carrier that’s ceased operations.

While the application window at the airline is currently closed, Sterling said he expects the hiring window to reopen in winter and continue throughout 2021 to support the growth of Amazon flying.

The United MEC has long worked to protect its ALPA colleagues in bad times. First negotiated in 1994 and reaffirmed in its most recently ratified contract in 2012, the United pilot agreement states in 21-R Hiring Standards: “Subject to other legal obligations, the company shall make reasonable efforts to fill pilot vacancies with the individuals who satisfy United’s hiring standards, who have previously worked for carriers represented by ALPA, and who are no longer working for those carriers for economic reasons such as layoffs or the shutdown of that carrier.”

“One of the key values in being part of a union is strength in numbers,” said Capt. Todd Insler (United), his pilot group’s MEC chair. “At United, we’ve spent negotiating capital to protect ALPA jobs with contract language. It will apply to ExpressJet pilots, as it has for members of multiple other ALPA pilot groups we’ve already placed on the list.”

The Endeavor Air MEC passed a pair of resolutions in mid-September aimed at providing preferential hiring. First, in response to the closure of Compass, Trans States, and ExpressJet, along with expected furloughs elsewhere, the MEC passed a resolution resolving that “the Endeavor MEC will utilize its resources to help ALPA pilots secure new positions at Endeavor as they become available;...seek pilot positions for all ALPA pilots who’ve experienced a job loss;...[and] engage with Endeavor management on the creation of programs that will help protect ALPA pilot jobs and strengthen our Association as we traverse through this global crisis.”

But this wasn’t all. While Endeavor doesn’t expect to furlough any pilots, the mainline it contracts with—Delta—may. In response, Endeavor acted to provide support for those Delta pilots, many of whom passed through the fee-for-departure carrier. So the MEC passed a second, similar resolution specific to Delta, resolving that “the Endeavor MEC will utilize its resources to help Delta pilots secure new positions at Endeavor as they become available;...would like to create a direct-entry program for furloughed Delta pilots to gain positions as first officers at Endeavor;…[and] will engage with Endeavor management on the creation of a program that will help secure a guaranteed and contractual pathway for Delta pilots to Endeavor in order to protect jobs and strengthen our Association as we traverse through this global crisis.”

“While our carrier isn’t in a position to hire today,” said Capt. Nick James (Endeavor), his pilot group’s MEC chair, “in the future we expect our doors to open, and we’ll be able to help Delta and ALPA pilots find their way back onto the flight deck. As a member of the Association, it’s vitally important that the Endeavor MEC uses all of its available resources to help our fellow aviators navigate this pandemic, strengthen our industry, and foster unity.”

Other Programs

In addition to Mentor Committees, many pilot groups have repurposed or redirected established committees to coordinate efforts. In addition to its Mentor Committee, PSA retargeted its Education Committee to assist as well. “The Education Committee has changed its focus toward résumé reviews for all pilots who received WARN Act notices,” explained Capt. Bryan Rosenthal (PSA), the MEC’s Education Committee chair. “The committee also created résumé templates and directs pilots to appropriate ALPA national webinars and resources for progressing in their career.”

Other MECs have taken their Strategic Preparedness and Strike Committee (SPSC) and tasked it with overseeing support for furloughed pilots. While the Spirit MEC was able to avoid furloughs with mitigation efforts, the SPSC was hard at work before that, collecting contact information to ensure that the committee could communicate with furloughed pilots and keep them connected with their colleagues.

Some MECs are also setting up special furlough microsites to provide resources to their pilots on an MEC level, much like ALPA’s furlough support site. In mid-August, Delta published its Delta Pilots Furlough Resources site for pilots facing layoffs. The site includes information about applying for monetary assistance in an emergency, a recording of a town hall meeting, links to emotional and stress support, copies of MEC communications, and more. It also provides a furlough checklist and information on pay, benefits, and unemployment.

The Data Action Report (DART) system has been a valuable resource for pilots and MECs alike. At the onset of the pandemic in March, ALPA set up five categories related to COVID-19—including one specifically for furlough-related questions—to respond to questions from any ALPA pilot. When MECs rolled out their personalized DART programs, pilots had an easy way to ask important questions of their local leaders and receive trusted answers.

Both PSA and Sun Country continue to receive DARTs related to the pandemic through their regular categories, while Frontier and Hawaiian have added specific categories for pilot questions: Frontier’s Letter of Agreement 23 and Hawaiian’s various extended leave offerings.

Capts. Nick Bowers (PSA), left, and Bryan Rosenthal (PSA) helped pivot their Master Executive Council’s Education Committee to support furloughed pilots.

Assessments

While assessments are a valuable tool for some MECs, most ALPA pilot groups don’t have the resources to allow them to take advantage of this option. But as the deadline imposed by the CARES Act and the specter of furloughs loomed, three MECs voted on dues assessments to provide assistance to their members.

United pilots voted in a 1 percent assessment that would provide the equivalent of a COBRA payment to each furloughed pilot for 15 months. Combined with the contractual three months’ coverage by the company, this would provide a furloughed pilot with at least 18 months of coverage. “This is just the latest example of how our pilot group comes together to support one another during the most difficult situations,” said Insler shortly after the resolution creating the fund passed.

Delta pilots also voted in a dues assessment to assist their furloughed brothers and sisters. “During this stressful time, knowing medical benefits will be taken care of will help ease the minds of our most junior pilots,” said Capt. Ryan Schnitzler (Delta), his pilot group’s MEC chair. “This is an invaluable support piece and shows we’ll take care of our fellow pilots should furloughs occur.”

Delta pilots will fund COBRA benefits for furloughed pilots beginning the first day a pilot is furloughed. Benefits will continue until the date the most junior pilot furloughed who hasn’t bypassed recall returns to active duty or when furloughed pilots have depleted their COBRA eligibility. Pilots receiving this benefit will be required to have a verification form on file and update it on a semiannual basis.

The Hawaiian pilot group voted in a dues assessment as well. Under the Hawaiian contract, the company pays for the first two months of insurance premiums for furloughed pilots while the assessment covers an additional 12 months. This allows pilots to continue the same health-care plan they’re currently enrolled in for a full 14 months following a furlough. Pilots must remain on Hawaiian’s health-care plan in order to sign up for the program.

F/O Anthony Primerano (Hawaiian) was worried about the potential impact of health-care costs on his family before his pilot group passed a dues assessment.

“It’s a gesture in solidarity from senior pilots who may have been in this position before,” said F/O Anthony Primerano (Hawaiian), who was unsure at the time of the vote whether he’d be furloughed, displaced, or remain on the line. “But it’s also a gesture in solidarity from junior pilots who might be keeping their jobs but understand that it could be them being furloughed instead.”

“This is what it’s all about,” confirmed Capt. Larry Payne (Hawaiian), his pilot group’s MEC chair. “Helping your fellow pilots through a tough time while knowing they’d do the same for you when you need it. It’s the greatest sign of unity when this happens.”

Furlough Mitigation

Many MECs have worked directly with their respective companies on furlough mitigation, negotiating letters of agreement and memoranda of understanding regarding voluntary furloughs, extended leaves of absence, early retirements, and other plans. The goal with each program is the same: to reduce headcount or costs through voluntary means in order to reduce the number of pilots involuntarily affected. In addition to the recent efforts undertaken by United, other agreements have been reached, including the following:

  • JetBlue pilots achieved furlough protection through May 1, 2021, through a letter of agreement allowing the company to enter into a codeshare with American Airlines and providing limited, short-term contractual relief.
  • Piedmont pilots devised a creative solution that enhanced voluntary programs and developed backup involuntary programs for pilots subject to furlough or downgrade in the event voluntary programs didn’t meet a savings target in order to avoid furloughs.
  • Nearly half of the more than 2,500 Spirit pilots have agreed to temporarily work zero hours each month and receive two-thirds of their contractually guaranteed monthly credit while maintaining active employment status and receiving full benefits.
  • Frontier pilots avoided furloughs by negotiating voluntary leave options of one-, three-, and six-month durations to be offered from October 1 through March 31, 2021. Pilots facing furlough will have the option to either remain on active status and be assigned an empty line of flying with access to daily open time and trip trading or to be free from company obligations entirely.

As the specific issues differ with each pilot group, so, too, do the means for solving them.

Pulling Together

“This is about taking care of each other,” Everett said regarding supporting furloughed pilots. “Every pilot represents not just an individual but a specific set of circumstances. And our collective efforts show that we—as a union and as a pilot group—treat people the way we would like to be treated ourselves if we were in the same situation. It shows how we all pull together in times of need.”

This is the first “time of need” many ALPA pilots have faced, but experience says it likely won’t be the last. But in each instance, in each time of need, ALPA pilots can rest assured that their union and their fellow pilots will be there to provide support in any way they can—and that DePete’s words will always ring true.

This article was originally published in the October 2020 issue of Air Line Pilot.

Read the latest Air Line Pilot (PDF)