Tag: airline unions

After an accident or incident

An accident or incident is never a pleasant thing to think about, be it in a car, a boat, or an airplane. But it could happen, and you need to be prepared.

I’m addressing this from the point of view of a professional pilot instead of the private pilot because a professional pilot will likely draw more scrutiny, but will also have more resources available. That said, a nonprofessional pilot, especially one with any substantial assets to potentially lose, should buy into the AOPA Pilot Protection Services or something similar.

Once you join the ranks of the professionals, you’ll likely join a pilot union. The biggest is ALPA, but the Teamsters also have a significant presence in the industry, and a few large companies have in-house unions that offer the same services (the two largest are those representing the pilots at Southwest and UPS). Early in your career at an airline, the union will introduce itself and discuss its role, purpose, and some of its products and policies. One of the first things that will come up is dealing with the aftermath of an accident or an incident. It should be noted that most airlines have a list of potential events that go beyond those listed in various FARs that qualify as a major event.

One of the first things that you’ll hear is that you should immediately call the 1-800 hotline for the union as soon as possible, and you should not talk to anyone else until you do. That includes the FAA, the media, the police, and even the company.

Communications with the company should be limited to making sure the immediate needs of your crew and passengers are met (hotels, hospital needs, food, et cetera), but any discussion of the events that led up to the phone call should be avoided. The company will understand this, and will (often, but not always) offer to help get the ball rolling with respect to putting you in touch with union reps. There have been far too many events in which the crew made things worse for themselves (and sometimes the company) by talking to the wrong people too soon after a traumatic event.

The unions in the airlines often work together, and they share some resources. They also share some tools. All have people on staff as well as volunteers at each airline who are specially trained to help a pilot or a flight attendant deal with the aftermath of an event. These people will isolate the crew and help them begin to process and discuss what happened.

One thing that you can do to help yourself—before you talk to anyone at all—is to take the time (if possible) and write down everything as you remember it. Date the document for future reference, and add to it as you remember more. Similarly, you can use your phone to make a recording or a video in which you discuss what you remember. Don’t do this within earshot of another crew member, so that you don’t taint each other’s recollections. Once you get in touch with the union reps, let them read or listen to your comments before you do anything else.

An investigation will ensue, so honesty is your best policy. Don’t try to change the narrative, and don’t avoid an uncomfortable truth. But by the same token, don’t hesitate to use the resources that your union or association dues are paying for.—Chip Wright

New regional first officer pay agreement

Every month it seems that more evidence comes out about how extreme the pilot shortage is getting. I got an email tonight that was as clear as could be that it’s getting worse. ExpressJet Airlines, which at one time was the regional feed for Continental and is now owned by SkyWest Airlines, has been struggling for awhile to find enough qualified pilots to staff its airplanes. The union leadership at ExpressJet and ASA (also owned by SkyWest) has agreed to allow the company to hire pilots with previous FAR 121 experience and pay them based previous years of service.

That means that a former Comair pilot with 15 years of experience can get hired and get paid at year-10 pay. The news release doesn’t get very specific, but since ExpressJet only has an eight-year scale for first officers, it could mean that the 10-year pay includes captain time.

If so, that would mean that a new hire with the appropriate experience will get paid $81 per hour versus $37 per hour—a difference of $44. Further, the benefit of previous experience is also being extended to the 401(k) plan and vacation. The new pilots will still be at the bottom of the seniority list, so they’ll be on reserve, they’ll be junior FOs, and they won’t be hired as “street captains.”

Still, this is a huge step. It’s an admission that current recruiting efforts for pilots are not bearing any fruit. To take that a step further, it’s of even greater significance that the union agreed to this, because this practice goes against almost 100 years of industry norm.

It has the potential to ruffle some feathers among the pilots on property, but—in theory—it shouldn’t, since those hired previously are still getting paid based on total experience. If I read the press release correctly, pilots who were previously hired and would have met the requirements to get paid more will also get a pay bump. The only catch to this new rule is that the new-hire pilot is required to have left his or her previous carrier on good terms. In other words, it’s OK to have been furloughed or to have resigned, but if you were fired, you’re out of luck.

There’s virtually no chance of this sort of deal coming to fruition at the majors, since the number of pilots applying for those jobs far exceeds the number of jobs available. It also helps that the pay at the majors is also substantially greater than the pay at the regionals.

Still, this is a deal that can’t be made without at least some blessing of management at the majors, since they’re the ones that pay the regionals, and this is going to drive up the block hour cost of regional flying. For regional pilots who have checked out of the industry for awhile, this just might be the enticement they need to come back. We’ll see how the details pan out, but this could be a golden opportunity for many.—Chip Wright

The probationary year

For new airline pilots, the first year is one with a very steep learning curve. There are myriad new rules, policies, procedures and regulations to learn. On top of all that, you must learn the systems of your new airplane and how to safely fly it. Once you get out on the line, you get to learn the the day-to-day grind of being a pilot, with all of the benefits and pitfalls included therein.

One of the concepts that you are introduced to right away is that of your “probationary year.” In essence, it works like this: Because nearly every airline is unionized, the collective bargaining agreements (contracts) include a grievance process for the pilots to contest certain decisions, including terminations. It usually involves some sort of arbitration process that varies from company to company, but the principle is the same in that the union can fight back if it believes that a pilot was improperly disciplined.

There is one exception, and that is the probationary pilot. Every airline puts new-hire pilots on probation for a period of time, usually 12 months, but a few use six months. When you are on probation, you can be terminated at any time, for any reason, with no recourse.

The intention of the probationary process is for the company to see how the pilot fits in with new co-workers and the work environment. This isn’t to suggest that someone is following you everywhere you go or measuring the length of your pant cuffs above your shoes. Far from it. All that the airline asks is that you keep your nose clean. It’s often said that the best relationship a pilot can have with the chief pilot is no relationship at all. In other words, if the CP doesn’t know who you are, it means you haven’t been in trouble, and that’s good.

Most of the time, there are only three ways you’re going to get in trouble. The first is via another work group, such as the gate agents or flight attendants. The second is through your fellow pilots, i.e., the captains with whom you fly. The third possibility for an early ticket out the door is poor performance in training—in this case, recurrent training. A number of airlines will deliberately schedule new hire pilots for their first recurrent checkride at least a month before their probationary period is up. That way, if the pilot isn’t up to snuff, he or she can be terminated “without cause.”

It’s important to understand, though, that the company will offer retraining or help in nearly every case (even seasoned veterans make mistakes). To get yourself terminated means you showed up totally unprepared or acted inappropriately during training. In my 18 years of airline flying, I’ve never known a pilot who was terminated during the first recurrent training event…but we all worry about it!

While companies will not hesitate to rid themselves of a “problem child” who is on probation, termination is not the first choice. They’ve already made in an investment in you, and they want to see it pay off. However, if the behavior in question is severe enough, or if there is ample reason to question the maturity or judgment of the pilot involved, you can count on turning in your badge.

A few examples of pilots getting terminated early include drinking; theft (one pilot at a previous carrier took the window shades out of the plane and used them in his car—and they had the company name silk-screened on them. The CP wrote down the license plate, and the rest is history); excessive sick calls and/or no-shows; and sexual harassment. All of these are extreme behaviors, and no company would tolerate them.

Probation is a rite of passage for all of us. Fortunately, 99 percent of pilots have no problem at any time during their careers, including in the first year. Those who do generally don’t belong in the front of an airplane in the first place.—Chip Wright