Pilot Group Profile: 
Atlas Crew Members See A Positive Future

Air Line Pilot, November/December 2002, page 23
By Chris Dodd, Staff Writer

In Greek mythology, Atlas, whose name means "daring," was one of the Titans punished for launching an uprising against the Olympians. For his crime, Zeus forced Atlas to shoulder the heavens for eternity. Like much of mythology, the story was a romanticized explanation of a natural phenomenon, i.e., what held up the sky.

The Atlas pilots’ history with ALPA has elements of drama that would be worthy of their namesake—two organizing drives, a bitter court fight, and two stormy attempts to secure a contract, finally settled this July.

And what the pilot group hopes to carry on its shoulders after those 3 tumultuous years is a solid foundation contract to build on, strengthened relations with management, and a focus on issues unique to the cargo sector.

Atlas flightcrew members are justifiably proud of having helped build the airline into the world’s third largest cargo carrier (after FedEx and UPS) in barely 10 years. Michael Chowdry, a Pakistani who came to the United States in 1976 and earned a degree in agricultural aviation from the University of Minnesota, founded the company in 1992 with a single B-747-200F leased to China Airlines. Chowdry recognized the potential boom in the air freight market in China, and also recognized a largely untapped niche—providing additional cargo lift to international carriers at costs substantially less than they could provide themselves.

From aircraft leasing, Atlas moved into what became its bread-and-butter operation—ACMI contracts—providing flight crews and aircraft, including maintenance and insurance, to short- and long-term clients.

Chowdry died last year in the crash of his L-39 Czech trainer, but the company has followed his business plan. A holding company, Atlas Worldwide Holdings, Inc., was formed in February 2001, with Atlas Air, Inc., as a wholly owned subsidiary. Four months later, Atlas Worldwide announced it would acquire Polar Air Cargo, another freight carrier (whose flightcrew members are also represented by ALPA).

Atlas is also the world’s largest operator of B-747 freighters. As of this June, the company’s fleet had grown to 37—including 13 B-747-400s each capable of carrying more than 120 tons of payload. Atlas’s customer list has included Lufthansa, British Airways, SAS, Alitalia, Lan Chile, Korean Air, and the Emirates, and it sometimes paints its freighters in the customer’s livery. In addition, the carrier has operated seasonal ACMI contracts with U.S.-based carriers such as Emery, FedEx, and UPS.

Flightcrew member leaders on the carrier, who were not unionized, approached ALPA about representation in mid-1996.

The current MEC chairman, Capt. David Bourne, says, "When we began to organize, our primary concern was not monetary, although that certainly was an issue."

Flying for a carrier that provided scheduled and on-demand cargo lift to far-flung destinations presented quality-of-life and a whole range of other issues—aeromedical, regulatory, legal—that are unique to that segment of the industry, Capt. Bourne believes. "You’re very much alone out there in the world. We were worried about running into problems in some of the Third World countries to which we fly; for example, if a crew member in Lagos, Nigeria, got stuck in the middle of a political uprising, would someone be there to protect him? We weren’t sure that we had that protection."

The first organizing effort failed in a close vote in January 1998. By law, organizers must wait a full year before a second representational ballot may be scheduled. The count was barely finished on the first ballot before Capt. Bourne and other crew members were planning for their second attempt at organizing Atlas crew members.

The campaigns faced intense antiunion pressure from management.

As the second organizing drive ground on, management began making overt threats that employee profit-sharing, which accounted for as much as 26 percent of some crew members’ paychecks, might evaporate if the group successfully unionized.

When the second vote was counted April 29, 1999, with ALPA winning more than 70 percent of the vote, management made good its threat, cutting off profit-sharing to the newly unionized flightcrew members, an action ALPA challenged in court. A three-judge panel of the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled unanimously in late 2000 that management had violated the Railway Labor Act’s prohibition against interfering with employees’ right to unionize. ALPA and Atlas management reached a settlement agreement on behalf of the crew members, winning restoration of the profit-sharing as well as full back pay, with interest, for all wrongly withheld amounts. Total value of the settlement to the Atlas pilots was estimated at $22.8 million.

The 27-month road to the crew members’ first contract was also far from smooth. Mediated negotiations produced a first tentative agreement that failed this January by a 70 percent margin. A reconstituted MEC and negotiating team went back to the table and, after the threat of a strike, produced a new 42-month agreement that passed by an 83 percent margin.

A major sticking point in the first agreement had been management’s grandfathering of the "gateway" benefit—that is, providing transportation to a trip’s point of origin—for certain pilots and revoking the benefit for newer hires.

Such trips are a major expense for those pilots, Capt. Bourne explains. The company currently has four bases (New York, Los Angeles, Miami, and Anchorage), "but our trips very often don’t start out of the base," Capt. Bourne says. "A pilot might be based in New York but have a trip that originates in Dubai." The ratified contract provides gateway to all pilots who live beyond 130 miles of their base.

The union also challenged management’s actions 2 years ago in setting up a subsidiary, Atlas Air Crew Services, to staff an overseas crew base in Stansted, England, with nonunion crew members.

As an adjunct to the new contract, union and management signed a letter of agreement that crew members who transferred to Stansted after Nov. 15, 2001, or were hired by AACS after the signing of the Atlas contract, would be covered by ALPA’s collective bargaining agreement.

The implementation agreement for the Stansted side letter was expected to be made final in late October.

The Atlas pilot demographic is unique, Capt. Bourne believes. With a fleet consisting solely of B-747s, the Atlas seniority list is, as might be expected, fairly senior, made up of "very few very young pilots, a large segment of pilots in their late 40s and early 50s," many of whom had started careers at carriers like Eastern and Pan Am, and another large segment within sight of retirement. At present, the carrier has approximately 670 crew members.

With such a diverse group, "we aimed to be fair at what we were seeking in the first contract, " says Capt. Bourne. "The litmus test for us was, Can we try to be fair to all groups? And I think the contract laid some good groundwork in that regard."

A large number of Atlas crew members are former military pilots like Capt. Tom Butler, a member of the negotiating committee. Capt. Butler joined the company 9 years ago after 20 years as an Air Force pilot, including stints flying Air Force Two and as a "doomsday pilot" flying a B-747 Airborne Command Post aircraft tasked with safeguarding the Commander-in-Chief in a national emergency.

On a percentage basis, more former pilots and flight engineers from the President’s airplane fly for Atlas than for any other airline, Capt. Bourne believes.

Nearly 15 percent of Atlas’s flight-crew members were called up for Operation Enduring Freedom. A significant portion of the company’s business at present is military charters, including a $182 million U.S. Air Force Air Mobility Command contract, which partners Atlas with FedEx, Polar, and five other cargo carriers.

Capt. Bourne joined Atlas via a different route, having flown private jets for businessmen such as Dan Snyder, owner of the Washington Redskins, and Joseph Albritton, former president of Riggs National Bank.

For 8 years, Capt. Bourne also flew for the AFL-CIO, shepherding around leaders like former AFL-CIO president Lane Kirkland and Robert Georgine, long-time president of the Building and Construction Trades Department, which owned the airplane. The latter experience fueled both a passion for organizing and a strong appreciation for trade unionism.

"In this business, you don’t own anything," Capt. Bourne says. "I always tell the guys, ‘We don’t own the airplanes. We don’t own the routes. We own nothing in this whole operation that we give everything to. The only thing you really own is your contract, and if you don’t have it, you own nothing.’"

Since the contract ratification, the Atlas leaders see other positive changes on the horizon. On September 1, Jeffrey Erickson, former president and CEO of TWA, assumed those duties at Atlas following the retirement of Jim Matheny. The Atlas crew members said they were looking forward to a productive working relationship with Erickson, a veteran airline executive.

In addition, Capt. Bourne was named vice-chairman of ALPA’s new Cargo Committee, established this summer to address the broad range of issues—such as scheduling concerns, cargo safety, and establishment of foreign domiciles that are of interest to the industry. Capt. Jack Burke (FedEx) was named to chair the Committee, which was to have its first meeting November 4.

Since their contract ratification, Atlas crew member leaders say they have noticed subtle but positive changes in the work environment, as both crew members and management settle into working under their first contract. "A lot of learning has been going on, on both sides," observes Capt. Butler. "The environment now is very different from working under a policy manual that’s subject to whim. This has given us a ‘defined space’ to work in."