Closing the Gap Between United Mainline and Express Pilots

Pilot Commentary

By Capt. Todd Insler (United), Chair, Master Executive Council

When it comes to protecting the careers of our pilots, ALPA must be engaged well before the pilot’s first day as a new hire and every day thereafter, helping the pilot prepare for the day he or she retires. At United, we’re taking an active role by developing an all-encompassing mindset to protect the livelihoods of our members throughout their ALPA careers.

The structure of airline networks and partnerships we operate today means that many pilots start their careers at a regional carrier before moving to a larger one. In some cases, pilots begin charting their career path as early as college. We believe strategic coordination between United mainline and United Express pilots is vital to the success of all pilots in the United family. By supporting contract improvements for pilots at our regional partners while maintaining a robust contract at the mainline, we help close the pay gap between mainline and Express carrier. Closing this gap is vital to our goal of eliminating the broken fee-for-departure (FFD) model used by most North American airlines today.

In early February, I attended a meeting of the United Joint Standing Committee affiliate carriers at the Association’s McLean, Va., offices to help coordinate our latest efforts. The Joint Standing Committee meetings give us the opportunity to discuss, in an open forum, the biggest challenges we face in the United pilot family and the most effective tactics to reach our goals. Together with Capt. Brad Ladimer (ExpressJet), ALPA’s FFD Committee chair, and fellow master executive council (MEC) and committee members from Air Wisconsin, ExpressJet, Trans States, and United, we discussed long-term goals and strategies for improving working conditions and career progression of our Express family’s pilots.

The current corporate relationship between United Airlines and our Express partners is based on a FFD model that’s outlived its usefulness and must be fixed. The Express carriers sport mainline livery, carry mainline passengers, and are for all intents and purposes considered mainline by the flying public. Yet as recently demonstrated, these carriers are repeatedly and relentlessly whipsawed in a fight to the bottom that ultimately harms these corporations, the customers, and most egregiously our pilots. It’s past time for United to move to a sustainable business model that works for all stakeholders and properly recognizes the Express pilots’ contributions to the United network.

To this end, United mainline pilots have increasingly taken a more active interest in the welfare of the pilots at our Express partner carriers. This effort has intensified over the past four years as we continue to push for improvements in our feed structure, improvements to Express management and oversight, and improvements that foster a more robust career progression for our Express pilots. The most recent example is ALPA’s role in United’s new Aviate program, which will facilitate the hiring of Express pilots into the United family. Pilots are the most valuable assets of the Express family, and they need a more reliable connection to the mainline. Going forward, we’ll continue to ensure that this program fulfills its promise and complements the hiring of pilots who come from outside the Aviate channel.

When ALPA members think of United Airlines, they often focus on the mainline due to industry top-tier work rules and pay, a massive international fleet, and rapid career growth. What must not be overlooked is the importance of feed by our Express partners, which includes the passengers we fly and the pilots who will one day join our ranks. We recognize that to continue our planned mainline growth, we need an Express network that’s safe, reliable, and properly managed—with the right jets in the right places. While it makes no sense to fly large mainline aircraft into small regional markets that have low demand, it also makes zero sense to use regional jets on high-demand routes into our capacity-constrained hubs and major cities.

Together, we can work to move management away from the failing FFD model. The United MEC is actively working with our fellow United Express ALPA members to accomplish our joint goals, and we won’t stop until we’re successful.

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

Read the latest Air Line Pilot (PDF)