Pinnacle Pilots Reach for New Heights

By Kimberly Seitz, ALPA Communications Specialist
Air Line Pilot, June/July 2004, p.18

At a time when the U.S. and Canadian airline industries are experiencing serious financial difficulties, Pinnacle Airlines is one of the few carriers maintaining growth potential in the foreseeable future. Because of its cost structure, its fleet of jets, and its route structure—codeshare flying for Northwest Airlines—Pinnacle has expanded while remaining profitable.

Under the name Northwest Airlink, the carrier flies Canadair jets from bases in Detroit, Mich.; Memphis, Tenn.; and Minneapolis-St. Paul, Minn.; and provides connecting service between 90 cities in 33 states and 5 cities in four provinces for Northwest Airlines. Like Mesaba Airlines, the other Northwest Airlink carrier, Pinnacle recently went public, although Northwest still holds a minority stake in the airline.

Poised for continued growth and desiring the solid financial framework that comes with signing a new labor contract, Pinnacle management approached the Pinnacle Master Executive Council, asking to open Section 6 negotiations early (the amendable date of Pinnacle’s contract is May 1, 2005).

"The MEC has agreed with management to open negotiations for a new contract the first week of July," confirms Capt. Wake Gordon, Pinnacle MEC chairman. "Right now, we are finalizing the protocol agreement that discusses how, when, and where the negotiations will take place."

Pinnacle Pilots at a Glance

Pilots: 880+

Operations: 570+ daily flights to 95 U.S. and Canadian destinations; feeder service for Northwest Airlines

Pilot Domiciles: Detroit, Mich.; Memphis, Tenn.; Minneapolis-St. Paul, Minn.

Company Headquarters: Memphis

Equipment: 90 Canadair RJs 44/50

While the Pinnacle MEC anticipates productive and constructive talks, it continues to coordinate a strategic campaign that follows the rules spelled out in the Railway Labor Act.

"We are using all of our ALPA resources to implement the sound methods needed to address these negotiations," said Capt. Gordon, after an ALPA-sponsored negotiation training session. Those resources include all the expertise and experience of the ALPA staff.

The Pinnacle MEC, along with the Negotiating Committee and the Communications Committee chairman, convened at ALPA’s Herndon, Va., offices in April to meet with the various Association departments that support negotiations efforts. With the help of ALPA’s Economic and Financial Analysis Department and Retirement and Insurance Department, the MEC developed a survey designed to garner the input of all its pilots. This survey is a key tool in contract preparations that all ALPA pilot groups use to determine contract priorities.

"We want every pilot to participate in this survey so we know what issues are important to them," Capt. Gordon explains. "With this information, our Negotiating Committee will represent the pilots’ wants and needs to the best of its abilities." Preliminary polling indicates the issues that will take center stage include pay rates, retirement, scheduling, work rules, and job security.

Experienced professionals from these two ALPA departments also compiled industry data for an informational packet that was sent to each Pinnacle pilot in late May. Those data compare the existing Pinnacle contract with the highest, lowest, and average contracts of airline pilot groups flying similar equipment. "The information provides a clear view of where Pinnacle stands in relation to similar airlines," according to Capt. Gordon, "and gives the pilots a better understanding of what they can hope to realistically achieve with the new contract."

With guidance from ALPA’s Representation Department and Communications Department, the MEC has developed a strategic communications plan to educate the pilot group on the process and to keep pilots informed during negotiations. Nearly 85 percent of Pinnacle’s more than 880 pilots have been hired since the last contract was ratified. Many have never been through contract negotiations.

ALPA’s Representation Department provides guidance for the upcoming negotiations strategy and will help with negotiating and administering the collective bargaining agreement. ALPA Contract Administrator Daniel Froehlich works closely with the Pinnacle MEC to fine-tune the negotiating strategy.

"We tapped into the ALPA resources as soon as management let us know it wanted to open negotiations early," Capt. Gordon explained, "and the response has been excellent. Everything we’ve asked for, we’ve been given."

Pinnacle MEC officers and volunteers watched carefully as Mesaba pilots successfully concluded their negotiations during this difficult economic period. Keeping open lines of communication with Northwest and Mesaba Airlines pilots throughout the Pinnacle negotiations is important for bolstering unity and support within the Northwest family.

"We knew we had the support of our brothers and sisters at Northwest and Pinnacle throughout our difficult negotiations," says Capt. Tom Wychor, chairman of the Mesaba pilots, "and without the solid backing of our Pinnacle brothers and sisters, we could not have achieved the gains we made. Our pilots in turn will back the Pinnacle pilots in their efforts. We are looking for our fellow pilots at Pinnacle to continue shoring up the Airlink side of the Northwest family with a solid contract that reflects the critical and profitable nature of our feed to the mainline. They have our full support, whatever it takes."

In May, the Pinnacle Negotiating Committee took advantage of a scheduled 4-day negotiations seminar held at the Association’s conference center in Herndon. "It was excellent training," says Capt. Tom Pipkin, Negotiating Committee chairman, "and our pilot Negotiating Committee is well on its way to being fully prepared to start negotiations in July." The Committee has been meeting regularly during the past 2 months to develop the MEC’s position on contract amendments.

"I believe this pilot group has many, many positive things going for it as we enter negotiations," Capt. Pipkin adds. "What we need is the pilot groups’ undivided support and resolve."

"We are very optimistic we will secure a contract that a large majority of our pilots will approve and ratify," Capt. Gordon adds.