A PSA CRJ900 departing Daytona Beach International Airport.
At the beginning of last year, PSA—a wholly owned subsidiary of American Airlines—was phasing out the 19 CJR200s leased from its parent company and moving toward an all-jet fleet of CRJ700s and CRJ900s, with the goal of growing the fleet to 150 aircraft. The airline was steadily flowing 10 pilots per month to the mainline, and new hires could expect to flow to American in approximately 10 to 11 years.
However, these plans for growth were wiped out when the COVID-19 pandemic caused a rapid decline in air travel overnight. By the end of February, Master Executive Council (MEC) officers at American’s two other wholly owned carriers, Envoy Air and Piedmont, confirmed that the flow through to American had been suspended indefinitely. It was also evident that the pilots faced significant flying reductions based on American’s load factors. In March, the PSA pilots’ Negotiating Committee proposed a voluntary leaves of absence letter of agreement very similar to the one secured by the mainline pilots. However, the company rejected the pilots’ proposal and decided to instead move forward with enhanced leaves of absence per the collective bargaining agreement.
Although PSA was receiving funds from the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act, the airline’s operations put its pilots at a disadvantage. PSA had an average pilot-to-airframe ratio of approximately 15:1, whereas the fee-for-departure industry average was closer to 9:1. As a result, the pandemic’s effect on passenger travel left the airline more susceptible to a higher percentage of furloughs. By June, the early retirement of the CRJ200 fleet, coupled with the financial blow resulting from the 60 percent reduction in flying that American imposed on PSA, brought the airline’s airframe count down even lower, further exacerbating the already high ratio.
While the pilots’ MEC and Negotiating Committee spent numerous hours working toward solutions to aid in furlough-mitigation efforts, the company responded with increasingly unreasonable demands for permanent contractual concessions. In July, the company turned down two proposals from the pilots: (1) a change to the enhanced leaves of absence that would have increased the number of hours a pilot would be paid and (2) the length of leave and an early retirement package. The company’s counter included cuts to proposed hours per month by nearly 50 percent and the length of benefits by nearly 70 percent. The MEC unanimously voted against these proposals.
As the global crisis continued, the company announced the closing of its Norfolk, Va., and Knoxville, Tenn., bases followed by the notice that 600 pilots would be furloughed in October, bringing the total number of furloughs to 720.
The company made clear its unwillingness to accept any options proposed by the pilots without permanent concessions. It even declined ALPA’s request for relevant economic costing data. It became evident that the cost savings to the company wouldn’t be reciprocated with equivalent or reasonable benefits for the pilot group.
“At that point, we had to accept that the company wouldn’t give us any path forward in furlough-mitigation negotiations,” said Capt. Steven Toothe, the pilots’ MEC chair. “Without consistent and solid financial data, we were unable to provide an offer mutually beneficial to the pilot group and to the company.”
As talks failed, the MEC’s Furlough Committee kicked into high gear, preparing to aid affected pilots. The committee coordinated virtual resources and hosted informational webinars and in-person road shows at the group’s crew bases. Nonetheless, the furloughs and downgrades made their marks on the careers of more than 1,000 PSA pilots. However, on a positive note PSA is now recalling all pilots, and the first class is scheduled to start in February.
“While the aviation industry is cyclical and our pilots have always exhibited a high level of resiliency, it’s tough to put in perspective what furloughed pilots have gone through recently,” said Capt. Matthew Coelyn, the pilot group’s Furlough Committee chair. “Throughout these very difficult circumstances, their relentless professionalism is inspiring. As we move into a new year, we’ll continue to hold our heads high, knowing blue skies await us and the worst is behind us.”
Looking forward, the MEC’s 2021 agenda will include negotiation and implementation of a preferential bidding system, an industry-leading reserve system, and the addition of technology necessary to increase security and safety.