A CommutAir Embraer 145 at Washington Dulles International Airport during sunset.
The CommutAir pilots’ Negotiating Committee started Section 6 negotiations with management in September 2019 with quality-of-life issues topping the pilots’ agenda. Bargaining was productive, thanks to recent contract improvements at fellow ALPA pilot groups and a dedicated team of pilot negotiators, including Capt. Earl Blowers, the group’s long-standing Master Executive Council (MEC) chair. In March 2020, however, pilots and management found themselves at the table at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“CommutAir had been struggling with the same pilot shortage that affected other fee-for-departure carriers, but this problem was exacerbated by management’s quality-of-life policies that caused an exodus to lateral competitors or low-cost carriers,” said Blowers. “Yet when the pandemic began shutting down air travel, we knew we needed to switch our focus from bargaining to responding to the sweeping changes facing all U.S passenger carriers.”
In March, management and the pilots jointly agreed to suspend Section 6 negotiations until September. Both parties then turned their attention to navigating a deluge of scheduling adjustments based on changes to United Airlines Express flying along with the increasingly unstable environment caused by the pandemic.
Thanks to funds received under the federal government’s Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act, no pilots were furloughed, and CommutAir was able to continue to meet its payroll obligations.
As the weeks went on, it became clear that United would make a potentially devasting decision, one that would impact the lives of thousands of employees and at least one of the carriers in the United Express system. The pilots braced themselves for bad news in June when the company announced its intention to issue WARN letters to 100 percent of CommutAir employees. To make matters even more alarming, by mid-July most other United code-share partners had either sent downsizing notices or had permanently closed their doors due to the pandemic.
The industry crisis reached a new low on July 30, when United announced that CommutAir would be its sole Embraer 145 operator. CommutAir pilots were safe for the time being, but more than 1,500 ExpressJet pilots would be out of work.
“While this is relieving news for us, it doesn’t change the fact that our ALPA brothers and sisters at ExpressJet find themselves in a difficult position at a tumultuous time,” Blowers told CommutAir pilots.
To aid management in weathering the reduced flying, the MEC agreed to a memorandum of understanding that included voluntary reduced bid lines, long-call reserve enhancements, company-offered leaves of absence, dual-seat qualification, and restrictions on bonuses for new hires and offline instructors. In return, the MEC secured a no-furlough or displacement provision through March 2021.
As COVID-19 continued to adversely affect air travel, the MEC determined in October that it would be in the best interests of the pilots to extend the suspension of the Section 6 negotiations through at least January 2021.
Although industry analysts anticipated it would take months for a major shift back to normal flying capacity, flying at CommutAir’s Newark, N.J., and Dulles, Va., bases stabilized, and overall operations dramatically increased when the carrier took over the Houston, Tex.-based flying left open due to the ExpressJet shutdown. In response, management turned to reassessing needs for staffing and equipment as United’s sole E145 operator, and the MEC focused on ensuring safety and contract enforcement at the new Houston base.
Pre-COVID, CommutAir’s fleet consisted of 40 aircraft. In late November, the company announced that all of the United-owned 145s were now on CommutAir’s certificate.
Consolidation of all United’s 145 operations under CommutAir presents the potential for significant growth in a post-COVID recovery. With the opening of a Houston base, the MEC is establishing its second local executive council to better serve member pilots.
“In what’s probably the most challenging year CommutAir has ever faced, we went from expecting a possible complete company shutdown to zero layoffs and now hiring,” noted Blowers. “The sacrifices we’ve made have given the company flexibility to secure our survivability in our new future.”
In the airline industry’s worst economic environment, CommutAir pilots have provided proof that cooperation between the MEC and management has turned CommutAir into one of the few airlines to emerge from the pandemic with expected growth.