Sun Country aircraft are lined up and ready for takeoff. (Photo: Sun Country Airlines)
After years of being the lowest-paid pilots in the industry and saddled with outdated work rules, Sun Country Airlines pilots ratified a tentative agreement on a new contract on Dec. 21, 2021, that brings their pay and retirement contributions in line with industry averages and significantly improves their work rules. With nearly 92 percent of eligible pilots participating, 93 percent voted in favor of the agreement.
The agreed-upon pay rates are in line with those of Spirit Airlines and Frontier Airlines pilots, and at the end of the contract’s four-year duration, the pay rate for a 12-year Sun Country B-737 captain will be higher than that of some mainline B-737 captains.
Although market conditions helped the pilots secure much-deserved raises and quality-of-life improvements, these gains came from years of planning, training, and mentoring ALPA volunteers—and, most importantly, pilot unity.
“Our pilots were incredibly unified in their insistence on a modern contract, with modern pay rates, retirement contributions, and work rules,” said Capt. Brian Lethert, the Master Executive Council (MEC) chair. “We were only able to achieve these improvements because of that unity.”
Pilot group unity was the result of a years-long effort to increase the members’ knowledge and understanding of key issues through the dedicated work of volunteers who got the MEC messaging out.
“This agreement was won through our Pilot-to-Pilot Committee volunteers,” said Lethert. “Their communication was the key to building and maintaining the unity of our pilot group.”
The pilot group’s contract became amendable on Oct. 31, 2020, and the MEC began that year planning for Section 6 openers. However, those plans were derailed when the pandemic hit, and the focus quickly turned to keeping the company afloat and pilots on property. Instead of Section 6 negotiations, the two sides focused on creating mutually beneficial agreements to protect pilots while keeping the airline solvent.
As 2021 progressed, Sun Country and its pilots had survived the pandemic due to the airline’s varied types of flying: passenger, cargo, and a burgeoning charter business—including signing a deal late in the year to be the official charter airline of Major League Soccer.
With the airline on a positive path yet pilots still operating under the old contract, the pilot group filed for Section 6 negotiations on May 4, 2021.
The MEC’s Negotiating Committee met with management throughout the summer in a number of small-group meetings. “These meetings were an extremely productive way to increase mutual understanding and to conduct a significant amount of preparatory work in advance of formal Section 6 negotiations,” Lethert remarked.
The first large-group negotiations meeting occurred in early August, and the company committed to working diligently toward a new contract, noting that the resources and leadership needed to ensure that negotiations moved forward without delay were in place.
The two sides continued to meet throughout the summer and into fall, with the MEC conducting pilot surveys, holding Local Executive Council meetings, and issuing regular negotiations updates to keep pilots informed. But as winter approached, the company notified the pilot group that it wanted to complete negotiations by November 30.
The two sides continued to exchange proposals, and in the week leading up to the deadline, the company provided a comprehensive counterproposal that moved closer to an acceptable package in several areas, but it also retained a few areas in which the two parties remained far apart.
But during last-minute negotiations, the pilots and the company were able to reach an agreement in principle on a new contract.
“Our asks for this pilot group put us in line with our peers,” explained Lethert. “Throughout the process, our pilots stayed unified, and the result of that unity was a deal that works for the company and secured the pilots the pay and quality-of-life improvements they deserve.”