FedEx Pilots Join Southwest, American Airlines Employee Strike; WestJet Poised To Follow
Many Americans will see their flights halted if the country’s leading airlines aren’t able to meet their respective pilot unions halfway.
The pilots of FedEx Corp’s (NYSE: FDX) air delivery unit voted “overwhelmingly” in support of a strike if necessary on Wednesday, according to the Air Line Pilots Association (ALPA), as it approaches the last rounds of contract negotiations with the firm.
With pilots in limited supply and air travel demand on the rise, pilots have greater bargaining leverage, pushing them to strive for improved contracts with airlines and parcel companies. More than 97% of union members voted, and 99% of them authorized union leaders to launch a strike by FedEx Express pilots if necessary.
“We are still in productive negotiations with our pilots under the supervision of a government-appointed mediator and will return to the bargaining table next week,” FedEx said in a statement.
According to the union, the industry standard for pilot pay has risen dramatically as a result of recent ratifications. Delta Air Lines raised the bar in December by giving a 34% cumulative salary rise.
“The ball is in the management’s court, and it’s time for the company to get serious at the bargaining table and invest in our pilots,” said Chris Norman, chair of the FedEx ALPA master executive council.
This comes after pilots at Southwest Airlines also authorized a strike last week, joining American Airlines pilots who announced the same result of a vote earlier this month.
In its May 1 declaration that more than 99% of voting members supported allowing a strike, the Allied Pilots Association, which represents American Airlines pilots, emphasized scheduling and work rule adjustments.
The Southwest Airlines Pilots Association has expressed dissatisfaction with the airline’s management of scheduling work rules and technological enhancements – a key factor in the airline’s holiday meltdown last year. After more than three years of bargaining, it received an overwhelming vote in support of authorizing a strike.
“Our pilots are tired of apologizing to our passengers on behalf of a company that refuses to place its priorities on its internal and external customers,” union president Casey Murray said in a statement.
Although United Airlines pilots have not voted to strike, some 3,000 employees picketed at around 10 major airports last Friday.
Garth Thompson, chair of the United ALPA master executive council, said negotiators have spent years working on work-life issues like improved schedule consistency and limiting the company’s ability to reassign pilots to work on days off and reserve provisions.
“We kept the airline alive during the pandemic,” he said. “The company is poised to have wild profits going forward and they’re giving us the stiff arm at the table,” adding that a strike authorization vote is not out of the question.
Following a vote by Southwest pilots to approve a strike on Thursday, the airline issued a statement stating that the personnel were not on strike. “The vote result has no impact on our scheduled operations,” the statement said. “We are staffed and prepared to welcome travelers for their summer travel plans.”
Southwest and the union are in mediation, and a strike would not be possible until both parties were released from the process by the National Mediation Board.
American Airlines spokeswoman Sarah Jantz meanwhile said in an emailed statement that the carrier is “confident” that an agreement is close and “can be finalized quickly.”
“We understand that a strike authorization vote is one of the important ways pilots express their desire to get a deal done and we respect the message of voting results,” she wrote.
In an email, United stated that it is continuing to engage with the Air Line Pilots Association on “the industry-leading deal we have put on the table for our world-class pilots.”
“All United flights will operate as planned while our pilots exercise their right to distribute information and picket while off-duty,” the company added.
Pilots in the United States are not permitted to walk off the job unless the National Mediation Board grants them authorization. The board must first determine that further mediation attempts would be futile and then offer the parties the opportunity to arbitrate. If either side declines, both sides enter a 30-day “cooling off” period, after which pilots and management can engage in self-help – a union strike or a management lockout.
WestJet strike looms
Up here in Canada, WestJet CEO Alexis von Hoensbroech says the company and its pilots’ union are still far apart on critical issues, particularly compensation, as negotiations heat up and the strike deadline approaches, describing the gap as “massive.”
After the union issued a strike notice Monday night, more than 1,800 pilots at WestJet and its Swoop subsidiary are set to walk off the job at 3 a.m. EDT on Friday–with the standoff in the deal already impacting sales.
“We do see softening in bookings,” the CEO said. “It is painful… Although we still get bookings, so the majority of our guests seem to assume that we are maintaining flying. And this is our intention.”
WestJet carries roughly a third of Canada’s domestic market this month, with over 16,700 flights scheduled, while Air Canada carries half.
Pay, scheduling, and job security, according to Bernard Lewall, chairman of the WestJet ALPA contingent, are the significant points of contention – one issue on which the CEO agrees. Lewall stated that 340 pilots have departed the carrier in the last year and a half, the majority of them have gone to work for other Canadian airlines. However, von Hoensbroech claims that WestJet’s mainline fleet has employed three times as many pilots as have resigned.
“After nine months of negotiating, management still fails to understand today’s labour market conditions, leading to a mass exodus of our pilots in search of better work opportunities,” Lewall said in a statement Monday.
According to a letter to flight crew acquired by The Canadian Press, WestJet’s newest offer to the union would see wide-body jet captains earn $350,000 in total salary per year by the end of the collective agreement term. Narrow-body captains would be paid $300,000 per year.
“Immediately upon the effective date, WestJet pilots would have had the highest narrow-body first officer and captain top-step wage rate in Canada,” the Monday night letter states.
WestJet issued a lockout notice before midnight Monday in reaction to the strike notice in order to keep “control” over its flights, according to the CEO.
“We are extremely disheartened to find ourselves in a place where we have to activate our contingency plan and subsequent takedown of our network as a result of the strike notice served by ALPA and their inability to accept a reasonable offer. We deeply regret the disruption this will have on the travel plans of our guests and the communities and businesses that rely on our critical air service,” said von Hoensbroech in a statement Thursday.
Given the lack of a tentative agreement, WestJet Group is parking the bulk of its 737 and 787 fleet in a measured, gradual, and safe strategy. During this time, WestJet Encore, WestJet Link, and a limited number of 737 flights will continue to operate.
“We remain at the bargaining table, unequivocally committed to achieving a deal as soon as possible, but are equally ready to weather labour action for as long as it takes to arrive at a reasonable outcome,” continued von Hoensbroech.
The tenuous negotiations come on the heels of the Air Line Pilots Association accepting a merger with the Air Canada Pilots Association on Wednesday, bringing the country’s two largest flight crew labor groups under one roof.
According to Charlene Hudy, council chair of the Air Canada union, the move implies that 95 percent of professional Canadian pilots are now represented by a single union, effective immediately.
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