Real Airline, Real Contract -
Real Leadership

ExpressJet pilots move forward with ALPA affiliation.

By Gordon Shattles, Communications Specialist, and Gavin Francis, Staff Writer
Air Line Pilot, March 2005, p.17

ExpressJet Pilots at a Glance

Pilots: 2,600 pilots with domiciles in Houston, Clevelan, and Newark.

Operations: ExpressJet pilots safely transport more than 50,000 passengers daily on a growing fleet of state-of-the-art Embraer jets to more than 130 destinations, which range from St. Johns, Newfoundland, to Acapulco, Mexico, and the Caribbean. ExpressJet Airlines is the sole provider of small-jet service for Continental's hubs in Newark, Cleveland, and Houston, and is the largest small-jet operator in the world.

Headquarters: Houston, Tex.

Fleet: 245 Embraer 135-ERs and -LRs, Embraer 145-ERs and -LRs, and Embraer 145-XRs (21 deliveries in 2005 and 8 in 2006 with 100 options for more aircraft)

At a time when the piloting profession has had to bear the brunt of declining airline economics, few negotiating stories have had happy endings. But occasionally, a bright star to follow appears in the sky. The ExpressJet story is one of those. It's a story about pilot unity and member leadership, ALPA promises made and kept, and perseverance in tough times. 

ALPA's 2000 Board of Directors launched the union's Pilot Unity Campaign to reach out to pilots of independent unions and the unaffiliated. The goal was, and remains, having all pilots speak with one strong voice under ALPA. In June 2001, the Independent Association of Continental Pilots voted to merge with ALPA. That early pilot unity initiative was followed closely by FedEx and Gemini Air Cargo pilots voting to join the Association. 

ALPA's belief in "one union, one voice, one mission" was mirrored at ExpressJet by the pilot group's rallying cry of "Real Airline, Real Contract." From beginning to end, their campaign took Real Leadership.

The hard road to a contract 

ExpressJet pilots stepped up to the plate and hit the ball hard when they concluded their first contract under ALPA. Ratification of the agreement in November 2004 culminated a long process that started with work to get Continental and Continental Express pilots reaffiliated in ALPA in 2000. It ended after 4 years of hard work that included the merger campaign, bargaining preparation, and 27 months of tough negotiations. 

Along the way, the ExpressJet pilots faced obstacles like 9/11; Continental's spinoff of Continental Express, which resulted in a flow-through agreement between the two companies being terminated; and a recess in negotiations that the National Mediation Board directed. These hurdles didn't stop ExpressJet pilots from achieving significant contract improvements in many areas, including compensation, medical coverage and retirement benefits, scope, and scheduling. 

The fact that the bargaining took place during a period that ALPA contract professionals have characterized as "the worst airline labor negotiations environment in history" makes the ExpressJet pilots' victory all the more impressive. ALPA resources promised and delivered added bargaining power and contract enforcement help. ExpressJet pilots provided unwavering unity and huge numbers of volunteers for shareholder meetings and informational picketing. They participated in pilot-to-pilot events in all bases and supported their Negotiating Committee until a tentative agreement was reached. The pilots ratified the TA with a 61 percent approval rating. 

"We just didn't have the tools or resources we needed under the IACP to enforce our contract or bargain for a new one," says Capt. Mark Leneski, chairman of the ExpressJet pilots' Master Executive Council. "We recognized the advantages of ALPA representation, and we worked really hard to make the merger happen. While some pilots were skeptical that ALPA really cared about express-type pilots, that decision has really paid off for us, and it's especially evident in our new contract."

From turboprop to IPO 

Formed in the early 1990s from several commuter airlines, including Rocky Mountain Airlines, Britt Airways, Bar Harbor Airlines, and Provincetown-Boston Airlines, ExpressJet Airlines became its own corporate entity in 2002, when Continental Airlines spun off its Continental Express operation through an initial public offering. Since that time, the mainline has reduced its ownership stake by continuing to sell stock that it retained in ExpressJet. 

In the mid-1990s, Continental Express flew only a turboprop fleet made up of BE-1900Ds, EMB-120s, and ATR 42/72s. ExpressJet is now all an all-jet operator and has the largest fleet of EMB-135s and -145s in the world. The company flies more than 50,000 passengers per day on 245 Embraer airliners, and is scheduled to take delivery of 30 more airplanes. ExpressJet now flies to destinations as distant as Acapulco, Mexico, and St. Johns, Newfoundland, and many points in between, from bases in Newark, Cleveland, and Houston. 

"The benefits of ALPA membership were apparent right from the beginning."
--Capt. Neal Schwartz, ExpressJet

Despite the current U.S. airline industry woes, ExpressJet is extremely profitable, having earned a $108 million profit in 2003 and $120 million in 2004. The airline is on track to match this feat in 2005. Pilot hiring continues at 50 to 80 new pilots per month; and training, in a state-of-the-art facility that the company built in Houston, upgrades 30 to 50 new captains per month. Some of this hiring and upgrading is because of the airline's growth, but it also takes care of attrition to Continental and other airlines. 

During the 1990s, Continental Express pilots transitioned to jobs at Continental under the terms of a flow-through and furlough-protection agreement (termination provisions in that agreement meant that it disappeared following Continental's sale of ExpressJet). After 9/11, ExpressJet became the home for many furloughed Continental pilots under the flow-back provisions; these pilots are now being recalled to Continental. 

Under the current forecast, all flow-back pilots should return to Continental by April. After they return to the mainline, 113 more ExpressJet pilots have the right to transition to Continental under the terms of the now-expired deal. Following this transition, and as a result of steps taken after the flow-through agreement terminated, Continental will hire more than 200 ExpressJet pilots through a "preferential interview" process, which has already been established. This will result in further hiring and upgrades at ExpressJet during the coming few years.

Contract negotiations 

The ExpressJet contract became amendable on Oct. 1, 2002. Negotiations were set to begin in January 2002 but the start was postponed until July 2002 after the events of Sept. 11, 2001. Based on the previous agreement's ambiguous language and enforcement problems in training and scheduling, ExpressJet pilot leaders decided that changes couldn't be limited to four or five key sections of the contract. Instead, a full rewrite of many sections had to occur. 

ExpressJet management was reluctant to undertake that extensive process, and early negotiations over contract sections like Filling of Vacancies and Training took weeks to complete. Fortunately, local pilot leaders, with help from ALPA's Representation Department staff, anticipated these difficulties and had put together a negotiating plan and time line that the MEC approved. The plan, and full discussion of it, divided bargaining into noneconomic and economic portions. Everyone understood that the economic portions of the bargaining were a long way off. 

Pilot leaders also understood that they would have to keep members informed about the negotiations at every step of the way. Working with ALPA's Communications Department, pilots constructed a comprehensive pilot-to-pilot network, published frequent newsletters and special reports, and sent blast e-mail messages weekly with updates of developments. 

This communication structure paid big dividends at key points in negotiations. At one low point in pilot morale after the airline's IPO and the consequent termination of the flow-through agreement, nearly 40 pilot volunteers came into the ALPA Houston office between Christmas and New Year's Day to call every one of the 2,000 ExpressJet pilots personally to share information and encouragement. 

A Protocol Agreement, which required a joint ALPA-management application for mediation, had been bargained with management before negotiations started; those NMB mediation efforts began in January 2003. At the 1-year anniversary of the contract's amendable date, ExpressJet pilots started focusing the public's attention on the lack of a new contract through informational picketing. The Strategic Preparedness Committee organized a huge group of pilots to attend the first-ever ExpressJet shareholder meeting in 2003. 

As the mediation process dragged on into 2004, it became clearer and clearer that the White House would make good on its promise to limit labor's right to engage in strikes. (The January 2004 strike at Mesaba was an aberration that occurred only after company management joined ALPA's request for a proffer of arbitration, which, once declined by either party, would give each the right to take self-help measures.) 

To create pressure in the absence of a proffer, the ExpressJet SPC created airport and newspaper advertisements and continued informational picketing at critical times in all three pilot bases. 

ExpressJet's new fully rewritten contract provides vast improvements in four cornerstone areas of the contract-compensation, medical coverage and retirement benefits, scheduling rules, and scope/job protection. It also provides full retroactive pay-at industry-leading hourly rates-going back to October 2002, the amendable date of the contract. 

"ExpressJet pilots fought hard and succeeded in the areas of retroactive pay, work rules, retirement, solid job security language, and compensation," says then First Officer (now Capt.) Neal Schwartz, chairman of the ExpressJet pilots' Negotiating Committee. "We now have scope language that binds the holding company to Section 1 of our collective bargaining agreement and the best retirement and vacation provisions among small-jet carriers." 

While pay rate increases as of the date the contract was signed are as much as 11 percent for captains and 13 to 15 percent for first officers, a straightforward and predictable profit-sharing plan is projected to add another 5 to 7 percent to W-2 earnings each year. Not including any raise for captain upgrade, pilots will see a 29 to 45 percent increase in their pay rate over the life of the contract. 

This increase does not include various other pay-related contract improvements--like flight-segment and duty-period minimum pay that applies to calendar-day layovers or computer-based home training--that will also boost total compensation. Per diem expense reimbursements were increased substantially, and miscellaneous reimbursements for uniforms, customs clearance, and other items were established. 

Quality-of-life improvements were added to the scheduling section of the contract, which was completely rewritten with enforceable reserve rules (including a 12-hour long-call provision), better trip-trading language, more days off per bid period (lineholders at 12 and reserve pilots at 12 in a 31-day bid period and 11 in a 30-day bid period), rules that make whole reserves who have their day off rolled, new reduced maximums for scheduled and actual duty time, and improved reassignment and displacement rules. 

"Despite heated moments and other hiccups during negotiations, we maintain a very positive relationship with ExpressJet management based on mutual respect--especially when compared to the relationships that we see at other airlines throughout the industry," says Capt. Schwartz. "Throughout negotiations, they played tough but fair. And we stuck to our guns during lots of up-and-down times. We're planning on working out problems during the life of the new agreement as they come up."

An extensive volunteer pilot effort 

While in contract negotiations, the Negotiating Committee and the SPC get most of the limelight. But many other hard-working volunteers serve routinely at all times on various other committees at ExpressJet. Peer Pilot/Human Performance, Scheduling, Professional Standards, Aeromedical, Jumpseat, Hotel, Membership, Security, Contract Enforcement/Grievance, and Central Air Safety Committees are particularly active and successful. 

The ExpressJet pilots' CASC, chaired by Capt. Frank Pizzonia, is well-known in the ALPA safety/accident-investigation community, and ExpressJet was one of the first small-jet carriers to participate in the Aviation Safety Action and FOQA Programs. 

"Our relationship with management is absolutely effective and has resulted in numerous necessary policy and procedural changes," says Capt. Pizzonia. "We have excellent interaction between ALPA, ExpressJet Flight Safety, Flight Operations, and Flight Standards and Training, and the FAA, and this interaction has produced a significant amount of positive change for our pilot group."

Continental/ExpressJet MECs 

Throughout the majority of negotiations, a single MEC represented the ExpressJet pilots and Continental pilots. The Continental pilots were also in Section 6 negotiations at the same time. The support and flow of information through both groups created an environment of support and a philosophy of taking no action that would adversely affect the other. Even though the MECs were separated in August 2004, they maintained a cooperative and mutually supportive relationship throughout. 

In the end, the ExpressJet MEC was faced with the decision of accepting the TA and putting it out for ratification to the line pilots. A diverse group of pilot representatives can always think of ways to improve a TA. With that as a backdrop, the ExpressJet MEC met in ALPA's Herndon, Va., office to discuss their new TA and voted unanimously to submit it for member ratification. 

The communications did not stop here; in fact, these very proactive pilots redoubled their efforts. All ExpressJet status representatives committed to each other that they would actively support the agreement. And in an unprecedented show of unity, all reps attended every road show and stood before all ExpressJet pilots across the system. Many line pilots remarked that this display of leadership and professionalism was tremendous. 

The new ExpressJet contract became effective on Dec. 1, 2004, and will be amendable in 2008. The Negotiating Committee will continue to work with management during contract implementation for several more months before handing the keys of the new contract over to the Contract Enforcement Committee. 

Pilots who sacrificed family time are returning to the line and to more time around the house. Pilots who volunteered, walked the picket line, or participated in events take special pride knowing that they were an integral part of the negotiations process. 

"The benefits of ALPA membership were apparent right from the beginning," says Capt. Schwartz. "The different resources ALPA provides were made available early and often. Negotiations alone wouldn't have led to the industry-leading contract we enjoy and plan on maintaining. We're looking forward now to drawing on the same kind of help during contract enforcement efforts."