Alaska pilots spent most of last year serving on the front lines transporting essential goods.
The current collective bargaining agreement for the pilots of Alaska Airlines became amendable on April 1, 2020. For months prior, the pilots’ Master Executive Council (MEC) had been making modest progress at the table with management, reaching some tentative agreements in long-deficient areas important to the pilot group. The pilots were involved, informed, and unified on a set of objectives.
Unfortunately, in March the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic hit the aviation industry hard, compelling the MEC to shift its focus to protect the pilots’ health and careers and safeguard the existing contract. In the first several months of navigating the challenges of the pandemic, the MEC negotiated a series of memorandums of understanding and letters of agreement that enhanced or additionally protected the pilots’ terms and working conditions. These included pay in the event of a COVID-19 exposure and quarantine, as well as guaranteed leave options for those pilots who were high risk or needed to protect their families from exposure. The MEC also took actions that assisted commuting pilots by reducing some of the challenges involved in getting to work during the pandemic. Later, and most importantly, the MEC was able to negotiate voluntary leaves, incentive lines, and an enhanced path to retirement that ensured no pilot was involuntarily furloughed. These agreements had broad participation and required no concessionary contractual modifications.
Additionally, the MEC established a new COVID-19 Task Group early in the pandemic composed of key committee volunteers. It kept pilots informed on the rapidly changing pandemic environment and became a check and balance to the company’s COVID-19 safety measures and processes. As management’s resources were stretched thin during the initial response to the pandemic, the MEC’s newly formed task group was able to engage its subject-matter experts to ensure the highest level of safety, and to push management to meet or exceed compliance with the rapidly changing governmental mandates relating to the pandemic. Since its establishment, the task group has accomplished a number of measures, such as identifying the need for the company to replace ineffective disinfectant wipes in the cockpit and to provide rapid testing and temperature screenings in training facilities.
Although the pandemic has tested the MEC, committee volunteers, and the pilot group, everyone collectively rose to the occasion. During any significant challenge, there’s also opportunity. Last year provided chances to explore new and innovative solutions that protected pilots while also allowing the airline to be successful. These efforts demonstrated that problems can be solved in mutually beneficial ways when management is willing to work constructively with union leaders. The MEC will continue to press management to take this approach as the parties negotiate the other important priorities identified by the pilot group.
As the initial impacts of COVID-19 have been largely addressed, MEC leaders believe now is the time to return to the bargaining table to achieve a fair contract. Among other things, the pilots must have meaningful improvements to quality of life in scheduling work rules and flexibility. Also, the pilots’ commitment to their company must, at long last, be recognized by management in the form of job security guarantees, which can be found in the scope sections of pilot contracts throughout the industry.
The success of the MEC over these past few years is due to the unity displayed by the pilot group and the experience of the MEC leaders and committee structure. Volunteers and MEC representatives have come together to leverage unique skill sets, drawing upon their collective experiences to protect the pilots during the pandemic. Now they will take that same energy, momentum, and solidarity demonstrated over these many months and apply those to negotiating the pilot group’s priorities in the next contract.