A Piedmont E145 at sunrise on the ramp at Philadelphia International Airport.
Both Piedmont Airlines and its pilot group are experiencing some growing pains as they expand their operation and complete the “cultural” transition to an all-jet fleet. While any carrier would welcome the opportunity to grow, subtle issues have emerged for the Salisbury, Md.-based carrier that have created some unforeseen challenges.
Piedmont parked its last Dash 8 in July 2018, but the residual effects of being a turboprop carrier for so many years continue to be felt. “Operational problems such as scheduling concerns occur from time to time because our contract was negotiated when we were flying props,” said Capt. Bruce Freedman, the pilots’ Master Executive Council (MEC) chair, adding, “In some respects, the language of our agreement doesn’t fit the needs of our airline anymore.”
This is particularly tricky when you consider that the Piedmont pilots’ collective bargaining agreement doesn’t become amendable until September 2024. However, the pilots and management agreed to several mid-term negotiations during the life of the collective bargaining agreement, at which time each side can submit up to five issues for consideration. The two parties convened last summer for one such opportunity, but the talks resulted in a rejected tentative agreement by the pilots, who were hoping to parlay significant changes to salaries and work rules.
“In this situation, the company wasn’t required to return to the negotiating table and didn’t choose to do so,” remarked Freedman, who noted that these mini-bargaining sessions don’t offer the same leverage as Section 6 negotiations, as outlined in the Railway Labor Act. The pilots have one more opportunity to meet with management for another round of interim talks in January 2021, as set out in Letter of Agreement 19.
Meanwhile, Piedmont will continue to acquire additional aircraft through the spring of 2019, topping out at 60 E145s for the near term. While the airline closed its Roanoke, Va., pilot base in 2018, the pilot ranks have grown by more than 10 percent over the last year, and Piedmont continues to attract and train new aviators. Among its employment strategies, the airline has agreements with several universities that offer aviation programs to create a direct-entry pipeline for students who have sufficient flight time.
Part of Piedmont’s success in enticing new pilots has been its flow-through agreement with mainline affiliate and fellow American Airlines Group carrier American Airlines. While pilots can apply and be hired at any larger carrier, Piedmont pilots with enough seniority can simply transition to American when vacancies exist. “American uses Piedmont and its other wholly owned subsidiaries like farm teams,” said Freedman, who added that the agreement enables the mainline carrier to monitor the performance and progress of many of its future pilots.
While this arrangement is a selling point for Piedmont pilot jobs, it’s also created an atmosphere of transience among the pilot ranks. Freedman, who’s been with the carrier for more than 35 years, noted that most pilots see their time at the carrier as short-term. Fortunately, the group has witnessed a recent increase in volunteerism in support of the Association as pilots recognize that by helping their union they stand a better chance of improving conditions at the property.
Further facilitating this potential for progress, the pilots have a reasonably productive relationship with management. “Union leaders can walk in any airline manager’s office,” Freedman shared, noting that the two parties talk frequently. Grievances have been held to a minimum because of this open relationship and communication. However, bargaining is often encumbered by the fact that Piedmont management doesn’t always have the final say and must defer to American Airlines Group for direction.
As for the future, the MEC has been talking with the airline about a preferential bidding system and other scheduling changes to improve the working lives of its members. In addition, Freedman observed, “Although there’s been no official word, there’s always the possibility of a new crew base because we need to get more flying for the airplanes we have.” Time will tell.