An Air Wisconsin CRJ200 parked at Washington Dulles International Airport.
After the successful ratification of a new collective bargaining agreement in November 2019, nine long years after negotiations began, the Air Wisconsin pilots were looking forward to strengthening their relationship with management, continuing to hire pilots to fully staff their fleet, and getting life back to “normal.”
Just as the agreement was being fully implemented, the World Health Organization declared the COVID-19 crisis a pandemic on March 11, 2020. As the state of the industry took a dramatic turn for the worse, the pilots’ Master Executive Council (MEC) had to act quickly to cope with the repercussions. The MEC immediately worked with the company to pass a letter of agreement providing protections for pilots who would be affected by the virus and its aftermath.
The MEC also quickly moved to avoid furloughs in April and May by reaching an agreement with management to temporarily reduce the monthly pay guarantee for those bid periods. The MEC took action after seeing the April bid period flying decrease by a small percentage, then by 40 percent just prior to the bidding window opening. This was done before the passage of the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act. Although the monthly pay guarantee reduction wasn’t popular with the pilots, the move did avoid any early furlough activity.
When it became obvious that the pandemic’s effects wouldn’t be short-lived, the MEC reactivated its Furlough Support Committee and named Capt. Joel Barman its chair. “He did this for us in 2008 when we had pilots on furlough,” explained Capt. Ken Reinert, the pilots’ MEC vice chair, “and he’s battle-hardened, having dealt with two carrier shutdowns prior to landing here at Air Wisconsin.” Barman and Capt. Jimmy Abdalla, the Membership Committee chair, worked with ALPA’s Furloughed Pilots Support Program to learn about resources available to members and made a concerted effort to reach out to all the Air Wisconsin pilots who were being furloughed.
Through the spring and summer, the MEC and the company continued working to find ways to mitigate the likelihood of October furloughs. Unfortunately, many of the initiatives that larger carriers implemented weren’t scalable for smaller airlines like Air Wisconsin. The biggest cost savings would result from a reduction in guaranteed hours, which the pilot group didn’t support. Without a mitigation deal in place or a CARES Act extension on October 1, the company furloughed 147 pilots. However, the number of pilots furloughed was smaller than the company’s original projection of 180–200, and 20 pilots voluntarily took a furlough.
Capt. Ken Nesbitt, the MEC chair, wrote to the pilot group ahead of October 1, “To all of the men and women who will be furloughed from Air Wisconsin this Thursday morning, we are truly sorry that this is happening. Please know the MEC, officers, and committees continue working day in and day out to get you back on property as quickly as we can. It is our hope that we can soon see some relief from all the terrible things that are a product of COVID-19.”
Although the MEC feels that having even one pilot on furlough is one too many, it took some solace in the fact that on November 1, the company recalled 27 furloughed pilots to active status. This happened even though the airline was flying at about 48 percent of its pre-COVID schedule for United Airlines.
There’s still a long way to go to a full recovery. Air Wisconsin’s current flying has resulted in inefficient trip construction with less-than-optimal crew and aircraft utilization. The horizon brightened significantly with the enactment of a COVID-19 relief package just before the end of 2020 that includes a payroll support program (PSP) extension. The company has indicated its intention to accept the PSP funding, paving the way to recalling all of the remaining 120 furloughed Air Wisconsin pilots.