Air Wisconsin’s CRJ200s will begin flying under American Eagle starting in March.
Like a cat with nine lives, the Air Wisconsin Airlines pilots survived another threat to the future of their airline in 2022, but they began the new year with continued concerns about its competitiveness as it begins flying with a new mainline partner.
Starting this March, Air Wisconsin will be an express carrier for its third mainline in a decade: American Airlines. It will change the colors on its fleet to American Eagle after having previously flown as United Express and, before 2017, US Airways Express.
“It’s a credit to our pilot group that we’ve been able to change course and operate safely and efficiently for so many different mainlines in so short a time,” said Capt. John Fremont, the pilots’ Master Executive Council (MEC) chair. “We only wish that our compensation had changed to keep up with our peers as frequently as the colors on our tails have done.”
Unfortunately, Air Wisconsin is one of the lowest-paying airlines in the fee-for-departure (FFD) sector. When American made the game-changing decision last year to negotiate massive pilot pay increases to Envoy Air, Piedmont, and PSA, its three wholly owned subsidiaries, other FFD carriers responded quickly—except for Air Wisconsin.
Instead, Air Wisconsin management wasted time trying to entice pilots, especially captains, to move to an undesirable new domicile in Dayton, Ohio. When a letter of agreement (LOA) that incentivized first officers to upgrade to captain in Dayton didn’t achieve the desired result, management finally listened to the MEC and agreed to a new side letter benefiting the entire pilot group.
LOA 49 allowed management to increase pay rates by 25 percent and provide a $15,000 bonus. ALPA hoped this would avoid the company involuntarily upgrading first officers, which the LOA allowed if the captain shortage continued.
Management initially elected to increase pay only for first officers while ignoring captains but has recently implemented the 25 percent pay rate increase to all pilots except for first- and second-year first officers. Even at these increased rates, Air Wisconsin pilot pay is at the bottom of the FFD segment of the industry, and as a nonwholly owned regional, the pilots won’t have the ability to flow to their mainline partner at American.
“LOA 49 was a good first step, but it quickly became apparent to us that it wasn’t nearly enough as we saw our competitors raise their rates higher and higher,” Fremont said. “We continue to sit at or near the bottom of the scale, and we continue to lose pilots.”
Attrition remains a major problem, with the pilot group decreasing by more than 20 percent from 2021 to 2022. While some of the decline may be due to management wanting to right-size the group (the agreement with American calls for an initial 40-aircraft fleet, while Air Wisconsin currently has 60 aircraft), a substantial number of pilots are leaving because they realize they can make much more money elsewhere.
Last August, ALPA opened Section 6 negotiations with the carrier on a new contract. Based on pilot polling, the MEC’s goal was to fast-track an agreement with a limited number of items, most related to compensation and scheduling.
But after months without progress in negotiations, management announced in December that it would exercise its options under LOAs 37 and 49 and offer bonuses to new hires rather than bargain with ALPA. Management’s statement that it wanted to schedule Section 6 discussions in January was seen as a stalling tactic designed to delay any payout to pilots. The MEC expects this tactic will result in more pilots leaving the airline and fewer willing to join.
“Our response is to launch a new pilot unity campaign called ‘Compete to Win,’” stated Fremont. “Instead of throwing money at a select group of pilots, to win the attrition battle and be successful for our new partner, Air Wisconsin must come back to the table with pay and work-rule proposals that will benefit all of our pilots and make us truly competitive.”