The morning sun rises over a Bombardier CRJ200 at Gate F6 at Chicago O’Hare International Airport. (Photo: F/O Pete Buffington [Air Wisconsin])
Last year started off with 120 Air Wisconsin Airlines pilots on furlough, a lingering result of the COVID-19 pandemic and the expiration of the first payroll support program (PSP) extension funding. The airline was set to endure a slow return of travel demand through the year; but with another infusion of cash from the second round of the PSP, the company recalled all of the furloughed pilots in the spring.
As vaccines became more readily available, domestic travel demand ramped up very quickly in the weeks leading up to the Memorial Day weekend and through the summer. In six months’ time, management and the Air Wisconsin Master Executive Council (MEC) shifted gears from having too much staff and not enough flying to too much flying and not enough staff.
The summer months proved challenging as many of the pilots returning from furlough were still going through requalification training when the July schedule literally exploded, and the airline’s flying as a United Airlines Express feeder returned to about 90 percent of prepandemic levels. Air Wisconsin, along with most other fee-for-departure carriers, went from lean times to hiring mode in short order.
As Air Wisconsin enters 2022, pilot hiring continues unabated, although a fully staffed pilot workforce remains a challenge as fee-for-departure carriers compete for pilots with large jet carriers that are also hiring. Although Air Wisconsin pilots move to United Airlines via the Aviate program and to other carriers, the overall number of pilots on the seniority list currently remains steady at about 600 pilots, slightly higher than the start of 2021.
Capt. John Fremont, the MEC chair, noted that experienced union volunteers departing for other opportunities is a major challenge for the MEC. “We’ve lost a number of key people in the union leadership, including MEC officers and half the elected council representatives as well as pilot negotiators and scheduling, training, membership, and grievance volunteers,” Fremont said. “What makes things even more difficult is that many of our pilots are still on probationary status and aren’t able to serve as volunteers yet.”
The current challenge is finding eligible pilots to backfill vacancies from a shrinking pool. Recruiting pilots to step into volunteer positions will remain difficult as long as hiring continues across the industry, according to Fremont.
What lies ahead for Air Wisconsin remains to be seen. The airline’s capacity purchase agreement with United runs through February 2023, and it’s unknown if the agreement will be extended or renewed. United has stated that it intends to reduce its fleet of single-class 50-seat regional jets in the next several years, which raises the question: Will there be a place for Air Wisconsin’s fleet in United Express service? Air Wisconsin added the CRJ700 to its operating certificate in July and is currently working on adding the CRJ900 and the CRJ200F freighter. However, there are presently no known plans for where, when, or for whom these aircraft might eventually be flying.
Contract negotiations are another question. The current collective bargaining agreement, which was ratified in November 2019, becomes amendable in 2022. The MEC is focused on staffing and training a new Negotiating Committee as previous members have recently moved on. Yet Fremont assures, “The MEC will be fully prepared to open bargaining well in advance of the November 2022 amendable date.”
This coming year will pose challenges to the company, the pilot group, and the MEC. Assuming that the industry maintains its present course, staffing will continue to be a hot topic. Yet as seen in the past, when facing an uncertain future, the company has always managed to pull through. Will the addition of these different aircraft be the ticket? Time will tell.