Pivoting During a Pandemic: How ALPA's Pilot Groups Successfully Negotiated New Agreements

By Kevin Cuddihy, Contributing Writer

“Negotiating pilot contracts is one of the toughest jobs in the Association,” says Capt. Joe DePete, ALPA’s president. “It takes preparation, it takes patience, it takes persistence, and it takes courage.” That’s been the case even more so over the past year due to COVID-19.

From letters of agreement to memorandums of understanding (MOUs) to collective bargaining agreements, the Association’s pilot groups have negotiated more than 120 agreements since COVID-19 emerged in March 2020 through the skill of well-trained pilot negotiators backed by strong leadership and staff support.

Even while pivoting from their standard face-to-face negotiations to the more difficult world of virtual negotiations and communications, ALPA’s pilots have persevered. “Overall, ALPA’s pilot groups have succeeded in maintaining jobs, protecting pay and benefits, and mitigating furloughs throughout the pandemic,” DePete observes. “We’re stabilizing our companies and strengthening our economies through our actions.”

Support

Over this past year, pilot leaders and volunteers received support not only from ALPA’s national officers and professional staff but also from networking events set up to provide pilots the opportunity to discuss and share ideas. This ongoing collaboration proved to be extremely valuable.

Last August, ALPA’s Fee-for-Departure Committee held a bargaining roundtable for its pilot groups. Attendees discussed best practices, learning what was and wasn’t working at various properties. The same was true at the Negotiations Training Seminar held by the Collective Bargaining Committee (CBC) this February.

Throughout the past year, the CBC has hosted regular teleconferences to allow pilot leaders to share their experiences and successes for the benefit of all. “I’ve never seen this amount of coordination at ALPA before,” says Capt. Jeff Harbison (JetBlue), the CBC chair. “There’s been a tremendous amount of coordination and collaboration on these calls.”

The calls have focused on sharing property updates and negotiations techniques and tactics to ensure that everyone is on the same page. “The calls really enlighten everyone as to what’s going on at other properties,” observes Harbison, “and they’ve been able to use that information to make decisions on behalf of their own pilot groups.

“This type of approach has allowed us to build off of the successes at other airlines and has added one more example to ALPA’s repository for other groups to use and modify to their particular needs,” he points out.

The Spirit of Collaboration

The Spirit Airlines Master Executive Council (MEC) recognized early on the potential negative effects the pandemic could have on the industry. Its first pandemic-related MOUs provided for a bidding delay to allow the company to adjust its plans to a rapidly shrinking schedule; in return, the pilot group received a lump-sum payment. In addition, pilots who contract or are exposed to COVID are pay protected.

Other MOUs that the Spirit pilots negotiated included leave programs, new-hire protections, additional health and safety measures, changes to the commuter policy, and extended long-call reserve. But the most significant MOUs offered pilots, on a voluntary basis, the ability to fly zero hours per month for 50 hours of flight pay, while retaining active pilot status with all associated benefits, in exchange for a reduction in the number of pilot furloughs. By the time the Spirit MEC had negotiated MOU 8 and the pilots had sacrificed credit hours for each other, all planned furloughs, downgrades, and displacements were canceled.

These MOUs were negotiated very differently from previous agreements. The first two were primarily negotiated via phone calls; subsequent MOUs were negotiated via virtual meetings. “I never would have thought that high-level, highly important MOUs could be successfully bargained without face-to-face interaction,” says Capt. Scott Vallach (Spirit), the pilot group’s MEC chair. “And while it wasn’t the ideal situation it was necessary, so both sides just figured it out.”

Not only did the Spirit MEC adjust to the added difficulty of the abrupt shift to virtual negotiations, but it kept moving forward through a change in leadership as Vallach became MEC chair and Capt. Stuart Morrison—the former chair, who spearheaded their first COVID MOU—moved to the Negotiating Committee.

Through networking and CBC calls, other ALPA pilot groups were able to take Spirit’s agreements and build on them.

“After negotiating our first MOU, we received calls from a lot of folks in ALPA, including those from larger pilot groups, asking about our agreement,” notes Morrison. “So often Spirit pilots have benefited from other pilot groups’ work and negotiations, so it felt fantastic to be able to give something back that others could benefit from.”

Morrison praises Harbison; Betty Ginsburg, director of ALPA’s Representation Department; Kye Johanning, director of ALPA’s Economic & Financial Analysis Department; and their staff members for the frequent collective bargaining calls, commenting, “Being kept that up to speed on what everyone was doing was invaluable.”

Adds Vallach, “That’s the point of ALPA. That’s how ALPA is successful. The more that we as MEC leaders share and collaborate and plan together, the better we all are. We were thrilled to participate in that process, and it was really a good feeling to have something to contribute to the group as well.”

Pushing Forward

After joining ALPA in mid-2019, the pilots of PAL Airlines began formal negotiations for their first collectively bargained agreement in early 2020, with the hope of finalizing a deal by the end of that year. Although the COVID pandemic impacted that deadline, PAL MEC leaders chose to move forward with negotiations, albeit at a slower pace, as they’ve pivoted to virtual meetings with the company.

In accordance with Canada’s travel restrictions and physical distancing requirements, management meets in one location while pilot negotiators gather in another. ALPA staff members call in from their separate locations to support the pilots. While members of each side are able to easily talk with each other, communicating group to group presents challenges.

Regarding some of these challenges, Andrew Shostack, assistant director of ALPA’s Representation Department, observes, “It can be difficult to see management personnel’s reactions—if they’re pleased, confused, angry, upset, straight-faced, etc.—if they aren’t right in front of the camera. There’s an engagement that happens in person that you don’t get virtually; you can’t read body language or see confusion or uncertainty on faces that lets you know you need to explain something differently.”

In addition, he notes that negotiators have to call out an individual on the company team to receive specific input. There’s a large amount of nonverbal communications that’s lost, as well as the ability to have meaningful sidebar conversations, which can be extremely important in negotiations.

Although the pilots have made incremental progress, negotiations have been slowed by management’s refusal to bargain more than two days a month. Still, the MEC feels that some progress is better than no progress and has maintained its forward trajectory. Currently a few operational and all economic sections remain open.

“The negotiations process very likely would be significantly further along in a face-to-face environment,” says F/O Conrad Reid (PAL), the pilot group’s MEC chair, “but we’ve still made important progress conducting virtual negotiations. We’re definitely much closer to an agreement than if we hadn’t been meeting at all.”

Cargo’s Different Path

The pandemic has affected ALPA’s cargo pilot groups in a much different way. While there’s been a steep decline in leisure and business travel, shipping has boomed, resulting in an increase in business for the cargo segment of the industry. Yet FedEx Express has still experienced the effects of the pandemic in terms of employee health and well-being.

“With a base in Hong Kong and families there, and with bringing hundreds of flights in and out of China every week, we knew we had to act quickly to safeguard our members,” notes Capt. Pat May (FedEx Express), the pilot group’s Negotiating Committee chair.

Their first pandemic-related agreement with management dealt with safeguards focused around China flying—allowing pilots to opt out of flying to China while providing incentives for those who agreed to fly—and what to do if exposed, symptomatic, or diagnosed with COVID. This agreement was negotiated both in person and via conference calls, but subsequent talks were done by phone and virtually.

Other discussions between the pilots and management addressed the increased difficulty in commuting due to the decline in passenger flights and agreeing to pay protection for exposed pilots, sick bank protections, and leaves of absence for high-risk employees who were uncomfortable flying.

“The company also recognized that there was a lot of useful information coming to it from the pilot group,” observes May, including from the MEC and its new COVID Working Group, other committees, and ALPA’s DART program. “We had pilots on the front line dealing with various issues, and we were able to share those with management to get them addressed.”

Once the pilots had agreements in place, they shared them with their ALPA colleagues. Because of its early work on pandemic-related agreements, the FedEx MEC was able to share ideas and language with most other pilot groups to help them build upon the MEC’s success.

“What we shared, others could use to meet their own needs,” says May, “and with the CBC creating a platform for collaboration, we were able to share information regularly.” He notes that individual pilot groups were able to continue building on previous negotiated agreements even as the situation was changing on a week-by-week basis, calling it “a rapid-fire pattern bargaining that I’ve never seen happen before.”

In addition, with Section 6 negotiations scheduled to open this year, the Negotiating Committee has been deep into preparatory work, making for a much more challenging environment given the need for meeting by phone and virtually. Still, the committee has been able to take lessons learned in 2020 and apply them to negotiating the pilots’ next contract.

“Last year gave us a primer on how best to prepare working through remote negotiations,” explains May. “The rules of engagement are different from what you’d do in a face-to-face meeting. We learned a great lesson regarding how to adapt and prioritize.”

Kalitta Air pilots battled many of the same health and safety issues, as the company operated emergency passenger repatriation charter flights for the U.S. State Department, including to and from Wuhan, China. Their pandemic-related negotiations, however, were conducted while in formal Section 6 negotiations, not just preparing for it.

Kalitta MEC leaders started Section 6 negotiations in 2020, conducting regular in-person talks with management until the pandemic prohibited that. But, like PAL Airlines pilots, the Kalitta MEC leaders decided to continue negotiations even though it wasn’t ideal.

At the same time they were in contract negotiations with management, pilot leaders were also working with management on pandemic-related issues. Business was booming and the company was on track to top 800 pilots—up from 350 just two years prior—and the MEC needed to protect those pilots.

“One nice thing about Kalitta is that, even though we’re closing in on 800 pilots, the company often still operates in a ‘family’ type way,” says Capt. Stephen Alberts (Kalitta Air), the pilot group’s MEC Communications Committee chair and former Negotiating Committee cochair. “So in a lot of instances, it’s fairly straightforward to approach management with our issues and come to a mutually agreeable solution.”

While the MEC never spoke with pilot leaders from FedEx Express or other pilot groups, Alberts notes that they were able to review agreements from their ALPA colleagues, then “compare and contrast what we were trying to achieve at our own airline. At that point, we were able to formulate our own version of what we thought would protect our pilots.

“Our concern as crewmembers was that no one would be forced to operate flights to China and that we would be compensated for the potential risk of doing so,” he says. A later MOU mid-year more specifically addressed the medical issues pertaining to potential COVID exposure or illness and quarantine/sick leave use provisions for the pilots. “Again, the company was receptive to our concerns, and we worked well together to come to a mutually agreeable solution that also helped to protect business in China and elsewhere,” Alberts remarks.

As the year progressed, Kalitta leaders were able to focus on Section 6 negotiations, polling the pilots online to learn their priorities and conducting regular virtual talks with management. With both sides collaborating well and motivated to complete negotiations, an agreement in principle was reached last December, and the contract was finalized this March. The contract included all of the pandemic-related agreements of the past year.

Emerging from the Pandemic

“We’re emerging successfully from the worst economic crisis in aviation history,” observes Ginsburg. “This is a result of careful consideration and constant communication. We’ve focused on keeping the airlines financially viable and our members’ careers and health at the forefront through collaborative and innovative agreements.”

COVID has changed things, but ALPA remains the same: pilot led and staff supported. Through continued collaboration, ALPA and its MECs are well suited for the next challenge, no matter how the Association may need to pivot.

This article was originally published in the May 2021 issue of Air Line Pilot.

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