From left: Capt. Steve Alberts, Capt. Michael Intfen, F/O David Bowie, and F/O Juk Ting in the cockpit of a B-747-400 in Wuhan, China.
Among 2020’s unsung heroes are the pilots of Kalitta Air, who operated numerous relief flights throughout the COVID-19 global crisis.
In late January, the pilots took on a vital role in the industry’s response to the pandemic when they began operating flights that the U.S. State Department had chartered for government personnel and private passengers in dire need of emergency evacuation from Wuhan, China.
“We’d just wrapped up our first round of bargaining in Ypsilanti, and I was boarding a flight to Los Angeles to sit reserve when scheduling called,” said Capt. Michael Intfen, the pilots’ Master Executive Council (MEC) vice chair. “When I drove back to headquarters, they gave me a ticket direct to Incheon to meet our plane and State Department reps in full hazmat suits. We had a B-747 with a massive amount of plastic sealing off the flight deck, and our next stop was Wuhan where passengers had to enter through the cargo door.”
As the weeks passed, many Kalitta pilots stepped up to help, but it wasn’t the first time that the U.S. government had called on the cargo carrier to aid the response to a national crisis. The Ypsilanti, Mich.-based carrier was the first nongovernment airline in U.S. airspace, transporting plasma and cadaver skins for medial relief immediately following the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001. Since then, Kalitta has enjoyed a thriving contractual relationship for on-demand charter service with the U.S. and other governments, companies, and shipping clients, including DHL.
This relationship made the carrier the government’s obvious choice for pandemic response in January of last year, and within 24 hours of a call from coordinating government officials, the company had retrofitted two B-747s for passengers, kicking off multiple federally funded evacuations involving U.S. and Canadian citizens, along with citizens from other impacted nations. In addition to regularly scheduled flights—including Hong Kong; Shanghai, China; and other Asian destinations—the pilots also embarked on an extensive schedule of ad hoc flights as part of a rush to transport masks, ventilators, and other needed medical supplies.
In response to the pandemic, the MEC and Negotiating Committee added to their bargaining priorities that management would take the necessary measures to protect the pilots. By mid-February, the parties reached an agreement covering mainland China flying, avoiding China layovers, adding measures to protect against the spread of COVID-19, and establishing protocols for pilots who contracted the virus.
As increased operations continued, the company’s recent rapid rate of hiring proceeded. There were 350 pilots when ALPA became the pilot group’s certified bargaining representative in February 2018. At the close of 2019, there were nearly 700 pilots. By spring 2020, Kalitta’s home-based pilot group was on track to top 800—and outgrowing its outdated four-year collective bargaining agreement that became amendable on Dec. 20, 2020.
With that date in mind, the MEC and Negotiating Committee had been working seamlessly with ALPA staff to prepare for what all parties anticipated would be an amicable bargaining process.
“Pilot surveys showed us that retirement and insurance, along with compensation, topped off our members’ priorities,” said Capt. Jeremy Keyes, the MEC chair. “The Negotiating Committee remained focused on reaching a new collective bargaining agreement with management that had come down to a handful of open issues. Thanks to our negotiators’ diligence and after a full year of work, ALPA and the company were able to reach an agreement in principle in December.”
After reaching the agreement, the MEC began work to secure support for ratifying the contract by spring 2021. Meanwhile, the pilots joined the company in celebrating the addition of two new B-777s to Kalitta’s fleet.
“The B-777 fleet continues to grow, and the routes are expanding,” Keyes noted. “It’s exciting to be the launch airline for the B-777-300ERSF, and its economical global reach will help continue to keep Kalitta viable and competitive for years to come. But we need a collective bargaining agreement that ensures we can attract and retain the most qualified pilots.”
The global cargo carrier operates an all-freighter fleet of 24 B-747-400s internationally and nine B-767-300s domestically for DHL. Kalitta began operating its new B-777s in 2019 and added two additional B-777s to the fleet in October of last year.