Piedmont Pilots
An Embraer 145 at Greenville Spartanburg International Airport operated by Piedmont Airlines.

Within an industry always in flux, and with more than a few curveballs thrown at it in 2020, the Piedmont pilots’ Master Executive Council (MEC) is adept at finding solid footing among change—approaching every challenge with ingenuity and creative problem solving to secure a strong future for its pilots.

One such challenge arose in July 2018. With the addition of Embraer E145s and retirement of the Dash 8s, the contract that was written for a pilot group flying prop aircraft needed to adapt to accommodate an all-jet fleet. With a contract that doesn’t become amendable until September 2024, the pilots sought an option to bargain outside of Section 6 negotiations.

The pilots and management agreed to two interim mini-sessions, during which each side could submit up to five issues for consideration. The final mid-term negotiating session was scheduled to open this year on January 1, but with the current economic environment and instability of the airline industry due to COVID-19, the MEC agreed to postpone the session to Jan. 1, 2022, when conditions should be more favorable for financial contractual gains.

“We’ll continue to fight for the needs of our pilots, seeking quality-of-life improvements in these mid-term sessions, in response to grievances, and at any time the opportunity arises,” said Capt. Brandon Lighty, the MEC chair. “While we want to see big changes for our pilots, even incremental gains add real value. If we see a solution that can benefit both the pilots and the company, we pursue it, no matter how big or small.”

It’s this practical, problem-solving–based approach that’s helped Lighty and the pilot group’s Negotiating Committee build a productive relationship with management. “We value an open channel of communication with management. If we identify an issue, we can pick up the phone and start a discussion on solutions,” Lighty observed.

Since taking office in December 2019, Lighty has helped negotiate a handful of letters of agreement (LOAs) to benefit the pilots. When COVID-19 hit in early 2020, leading to significant drops in passenger traffic domestically and globally, the MEC was faced with a new challenge: protecting pilot jobs amid an industry downturn and pandemic. Responding quickly to the crisis, the MEC met with management to develop opportunities to give pilots additional leave and work options to protect their careers, income, and home life. Those programs eventually became the basis for the MEC’s recovery and furlough-mitigation plan.

“We knew that when the economy recovered, we’d need our pilots ready to pick up flying,” said Lighty. “It was in the best interest of the pilots and the company to avoid furloughs, so we worked through how that could be achieved.”

The MEC and management collaborated for weeks to find a solution that protected pilot jobs and positioned Piedmont for success when the industry recovers. Implemented through a series of LOAs, the plan prevented furloughs and downgrades, minimized involuntary pay reductions, and kept all pilots on the property and current.

At the core of the plan was enhanced voluntary leaves, incentivizing pilots to accept voluntary measures to offset the cost savings of furloughs. In its first month, pilots participating in voluntary programs exceeded need, leading to a surplus of savings that rolled over to the next month. In November and December when the necessary savings weren’t met through participation in voluntary programs, pilots from a pool of those who would have otherwise been furloughed were placed in involuntary pay-reduction programs.

“By keeping our pilots on property, we were protecting pilot careers and positioning Piedmont to pick up flying when the market demand increases,” Lighty remarked. When Congress passed a second COVID-19 relief bill in December, the involuntary provisions of the furlough-mitigation LOAs were canceled and the pilots affected in December received full back pay.

When the next challenge presents itself, the MEC will be ready with creative solutions to improve and protect the its pilots’ futures.