Sun Country is one of the few U.S. airlines to exclusively fly B-737NGs. Photo courtesy of Sun Country Airlines
Sun Country pilots kicked off 2022 with high hopes and even higher expectations.
The pilots had recently ratified a new contract that contained significant improvements in pay, retirement, and work rules, and there was a palpable sense of optimism after years of being among the lowest-paid pilots in their segment of the industry.
But it quickly became apparent that implementing the new contract was an even tougher task than negotiating it in the first place.
“In many instances, management failed to adequately implement what was agreed upon and ratified in December 2021,” said Capt. Eric Meenk, the pilot group’s Master Executive Council (MEC) chair.
Implementation issues led to an unprecedented number of complaints. More than 750 Pilot Issue Forms were filed in 2022, which represents roughly 1.5 Issue Forms per pilot. In many cases, these forms will be formally filed as grievances or added to existing grievances.
The company’s implementation problems have compounded one of the airline’s most pressing problems: a lack of captain upgrades.
Roughly 100 first officers, more than one-third of the first officer seniority list, have elected to bypass upgrade, despite the significant increase in compensation.
Poor schedules top the list of reasons so many otherwise qualified pilots have turned their backs on the left seat, but significant training and commuting issues are also key factors.
Given Sun Country’s stated desire to expand, the fact that pilots are expressing concerns about the current training programs should be troubling. “Pilots simply can’t be asked to risk their careers on a training program that is wholly inadequate,” said Meenk.
With a single base in Minneapolis, Minn., and a growing number of commuting pilots being hired, commuter issues are becoming increasingly important to pilot quality of life. Despite ALPA’s efforts to work with managers to improve schedules, many trips remain uncommutable on both ends. Those schedules, plus far fewer days off per month than is typical across the industry, are driving attrition among commuting pilots while also creating a barrier for first officers who would otherwise be willing to upgrade.
The difficulties faced by Sun Country’s pilots continue when it comes to the implementation of a preferential bidding system (PBS) on property. Despite the formation of a PBS Joint Working Group and an agreement to work collaboratively, management unilaterally developed its version of a PBS Letter of Agreement that did nothing to move the parties toward a mutually satisfactory PBS. Instead, management’s approach has slowed the implementation process and created significant concerns regarding trust and coordination. Despite these issues, the MEC remains committed to achieving a quality PBS without sacrificing pilot quality of life.
Accuracy in pilot pay remained a significant issue throughout 2022, with pay errors common due to a largely manual crew pay system. The airline purchased an automated crew pay system for implementation, and the MEC has taken a wait-and-see approach while continuing to push for payroll accuracy through an ALPA payroll task force and the grievance process.
Looking to 2023, the Sun Country MEC is focused on strengthening the grievance process to ensure contract compliance while preparing for what seems likely to be a difficult and contentious PBS implementation.
“ALPA is committed to ensuring that our pilots receive everything that was negotiated and agreed upon by both sides. The company has a solid business plan and a significant opportunity in the market, but it’s been unable to grow as anticipated because of management’s inability to implement and execute, particularly on the training front,” Meenk remarked. “We hope the situation will improve in 2023 and are always ready to work with management to achieve growth, but we expect continued difficulties in 2023.”