Chicago O’Hare International Airport quickly became Air Wisconsin’s largest domicile after the carrier joined United Express.
If 2018 was a year of tightly contested elections across the United States, few ballots were closer last year than the question of whether Air Wisconsin pilots should ratify a new contract after more than eight years of bargaining.
In July, the pilots rejected a tentative agreement by a very narrow margin. It was the second time in three years that the pilot group had turned down a proposed contract, having also failed to ratify a tentative agreement in 2015. The pilots work under the oldest ALPA contract, which was ratified more than 15 years ago. The group has been in negotiations for more than eight years.
Air Wisconsin is the nation’s largest privately held regional airline, and it’s seen many changes over the past decade. It’s changed its mainline affiliation three times over that 10-year period: from US Airways Express to American Eagle and most recently to United Express.
The airline began the year on a high note, flying its last American Eagle flight on February 14 and becoming an exclusively United Express carrier the next day. As part of the changeover to the new mainline partner, the carrier shed most of the East Coast domiciles it operated for American and returned to a midwestern focus. Washington, D.C., Philadelphia, Pa., and Norfolk, Va., have been replaced with Washington Dulles, Va.; Chicago, Ill.; and Milwaukee, Wisc. The company also opened a new pilot base in Columbia, S.C., in October.
But the focus of the pilots’ Master Executive Council (MEC) for much of 2018 was contract negotiations. After the MEC rejected management’s last offer in September 2017, the National Mediation Board (NMB) didn’t schedule any further mediation sessions for more than seven months. The NMB resumed mediation in April, and the two sides reached a tentative agreement at that first new session.
The new tentative agreement preserved the pilots’ industry-leading health-care premium contribution, a contentious issue in the 2015 contract ratification vote. It also included $8,000 in bonuses per pilot, a 1 percent pay increase, and retained the annual 1.5 percent increase in the group’s current contract.
But the agreement failed on July 3, largely because many pilots preferred permanent raises over bonuses, and some had concerns about the possible length of their duty days, according to Capt. Ken Nesbitt, the MEC chair.
“There were many misconceptions about the tentative agreement, especially that it would allow the company to regularly schedule us out to 16-hour days,” Nesbitt said. “Under the vast majority of situations, the agreement would have made our days shorter, not longer, but the company has abused the pilot group for so long that it was natural for people to be skeptical.”
With the failure of the second agreement, the pilots now face a fork in the road. At this point, the NMB has not firmed up any new bargaining sessions, and pilot leaders must decide whether to seek additional gains using the failed agreement as the starting point or to start over from scratch and renegotiate an entirely new contract—a process that could take several years.
“The company has said it needs to hire almost 150 more pilots before it can fully achieve the maximum potential of its United contract. We expect efforts to increase revenue will give us the ability to obtain a more respectable pay increase,” Nesbitt noted. “We hope to get back to the table soon so that we can add value to the tentative agreement and find a path forward to achieve the new contract that our pilots have earned.”