GUEST COMMENTARY

Raising the Bar

By Capt. Mark A. McClain, Northwest Master Executive Council Chairman
Air Line Pilot, January 2004, p.9

The past 2 years have been a trying time for airline pilots and our profession. The economic recession that began before 9/11 opened a window of opportunity for airline managements to reduce the number of pilot jobs and to successfully drive many pilot groups into concessionary contracts.

Flying opportunities should be allocated equitably throughout an airline family and that career progression should be maintained to the extent possible. 

Fortunately, the economic recovery is closing this window of opportunity.

Unfortunately, pleading a bad economy is not the only tactic management can use to erode our many years of successful collective bargaining.

One of managementsí favorite negotiating tactics, one that has been used since the birth of collective bargaining, is to "whipsaw" pilot groups against one another, seeking out the lowest bidder. E.L. Cord used it against Century pilots in the 1930s, and airline managements use it today.

Here at Northwest, management has tried to pit Northwest system pilot groups against each other by allocating jobs and aircraft to different airlines within the NWA family. Management tried to whipsaw Mesaba pilots against pilots at Northwest and Pinnacle (formerly Express Airlines I) during contract negotiations in the 1990s and is now trying to pit Pinnacle and other pilot groups against pilots of Mesaba during the Mesaba pilot negotiations. Indeed, "fee-for-departure carriers" in every airline brand are being forced to "bid" for continued or expanded codeshare opportunities.

If we ever allow ourselves to enter into bidding wars to gain management promises (which turn out to be empty), we undermine our own ability to negotiate increases elsewhere. Managements will continue trying to force pilots to underbid each other. That is happening, as I write, at carriers where pay is already far too low and working conditions are intolerable.

The only way we can combat these whipsawing tactics is to "hold the line" and uphold the integrity of our profession. Maintaining the highest standards is important for all of us, because a system in which we undercut each other takes us nowhere but down. Together, we have to use our collective resolve to help each other so that we donít have any "lowest bidders." The integrity of the air travel system depends on experienced employees, not on the cheapest option available.

As a Northwest pilot, I believe that we must support the bargaining efforts of our affiliates to achieve the highest standards possible within their ranks, because the lower the bar is set, the farther we have the potential to fall. Too often at the bargaining table, management has told me that "pilots are willing to fly for less." This needs to end. We must look at the long term and stop the erosion in the quality of jobs in our profession.

The airline industry has changed. In the past, a professional pilotís career would often start at a small air carrier where he or she would stay for a few years to get the experience necessary to move on to a larger carrier. My career followed this "typical" path. I began flying BE-18s and DC-3s at Skyway Airlines. After its bankruptcy, I flew 5 years at Britt Airways (now Continental Express), flying BE-99s, Metroliners, and Fairchild FH-227Cs. I was then hired by Republic, which merged with Northwest in 1986.

In todayís environment, this career progression is much more difficult to achieve. For many pilots, jobs at smaller carriers may well be career jobs. Many professional pilots who want to move to a larger carrier are finding that those opportunities do not exist and that they will spend a large portion of their career at smaller carriers. This is another reason why the bar needs to be raised.

This change in the airline industry propels us to rethink not only our career paths, but also those of pilots of other airlines. Flying opportunities should be allocated equitably throughout an airline family and that career progression should be maintained to the extent possible. We also need to enhance furlough protection for current members so an airline cannot furlough pilots from one carrier and then hire cheaper pilots at an affiliate.

We need to recognize each othersí contributions to a common system and maintain the highest standards for all pilots. Airline managements need to recognize a reasonable career path progression for pilots of affiliate carriers, and likewise affiliate carrier managements must recognize encroachment concerns pilots have of what has been historically large-carrier flying.

Managements have purposefully tried to create conflict among us to extract economic gain for themselves. This will continue unless we decide, as a collective whole, not to underbid our colleagues and to uphold the integrity of our profession. Capt. Dave Behncke and Century pilots fought this battle 70 years ago, and all pilots must continue to fight it today. The cyclical nature of our industry is not something we can control, but low-balling our fellow pilots is.