Thousands of pilots are protesting extreme understaffing and outdated contracts

Photo: Pilots protest outside the New York Stock Exchange. Credit: Air Line Pilots Association

Airline pilot unions across the country are standing up for their rights in a wave of actions. One thousand three hundred pilots with Southwest Airlines stood in the sun of Dallas Love Field on June 22 as temperatures neared 100 degrees. Now, hundreds of Delta pilots are planning to picket in seven different airports. Alaska Airlines pilots voted to authorize a strike last month, and FedEx pilots picketed on June 28 outside the FedEx Express Air Operations Center.

At the center of these protests are outdated contracts — dating back many years before COVID and the inflation crisis — as well as grueling schedules and chaotic work conditions.

The pilots’ demands are in line with other essential workers who were forced into unsafe working conditions during COVID and now face economic instability from record inflation. Their bosses took money for “relief” and pocketed the profits.

During the pandemic, pilots helped to keep the global economy afloat at great personal risk to themselves. The companies they worked for took tens of billions in federal relief money, but kept pilots and staff working on outdated contracts. The federal government propped up these airlines to the tune of $54 billion in two years.

Even as profits plummeted, executives enjoyed immense luxury while passing austerity onto their workers. Southwest Airlines increased compensation for all top-level executives between 5% and 14% in 2020, with then-CEO Gary Kelley raking in $9.2 million in compensation, while the company lost $3.5 billion that year.

None of this wealth has been shared with the workers it was allegedly supposed to bail out. During the worst of the pandemic, many airlines offered buyout plans to pilots in order to cut back on staff, rather than pay to retain workers. Airlines shrunk their workforce by 56,000 people by fall 2021.

Now that flights have increased again, most airlines are severely short-staffed, leading to record numbers of flight cancellations. Tens of thousands of flights have been canceled in recent months alone.

The airline executives have even turned flight cancellations into a form of revenue. In 2021, airlines refused to return $10 billion to customers for canceled flights, despite Federal Aviation Administration rules requiring these refunds. Airlines continue to offer flight schedules 11 months in advance, despite knowing that they are understaffed now and not knowing what the future will hold. Airline workers and travelers alike are suffering because capitalism cannot plan for anything beyond the next fiscal quarter.

Pilots are still working from an old contract, with negotiations indefinitely suspended during COVID.

“It’s been two-and-a-half-years since our contract became amendable and three-and-a-half years since the Delta pilots last had a pay raise. Meanwhile, our quality of life has eroded due to management’s unwillingness to schedule the airline properly,” said Capt. Jason Ambrosi, chairman of the Delta Master Executive Council, a unit of the Air Line Pilots Association.

Southwest flight attendants are similarly working from a contract last updated in 2018, and the Southwest Airlines Pilot Association proposed a new contract — which had been ignored — 900 days before its last protest.

Airlines are sacrificing everyone’s well-being and gambling with our lives. SWAPA reports that pilots have dealt with hundreds of thousands of schedule changes while being asked to fly on their days off. Pilots are professionals and take their jobs seriously, but this kind of extreme stress and overwork could have serious consequences.

Meanwhile, pilots are limited in the actions they can take. Airline labor agreements are governed by the Railway Labor Act of 1926. The RLA limits the authorization of strikes to “major” disputes concerning the terms of collective bargaining, which it classifies differently than “minor” disputes over interpretation. The act’s structure is designed to limit disruptions to the flow of commerce. Airports are a historic battleground in the 40-year right-wing offensive against labor rights, beginning with Ronald Reagan’s firing of 11,385 air traffic controllers in 1981. Still, Alaska Airlines made the decision to authorize a strike as an assertion of their rights and their willingness to fight.

Rights are won through struggle. Pilots and all airline workers deserve good, well-paying jobs free from stress, illness, understaffing, and workplace chaos. These workers — not the capitalists who pocketed billions of unearned wealth during the pandemic — know how the airlines should be run.

Related Articles

Back to top button