Jeff Smisek assumes the "good cop" role in a letter to United Airlines pilots concerning ongoing contract negotiations. Still, the United CEO does not dance around the highly contentious, primary issue of dispute: the scope clause.
I want to thank you for your professionalism, as you provide our customers with safe and reliable air transportation every day.
As I’ve said ever since we merged, my goal is to bring work groups together in a manner that is fair to them and fair to the company. Fairness, in a highly competitive business like commercial aviation, means paying competitively, and receiving in return competitive services so that our customers will want to fly us and our investors will want to invest in us. We need to charge competitive prices for our products, and pay competitive prices for the goods, services and people that we need to run our airline.
I’ve spoken to a large number of you in the cockpit as I have traveled around the system, and I share your desire for a quick resolution to contract negotiations for a joint collective bargaining agreement. Since March 2012, when NMB mediators and the parties established the “small group” negotiating process, we’ve made substantial progress in reducing the number of open issues. We are fast approaching the point that the parties will begin to negotiate the key remaining issues.
I’m sure by now you know that Delta and its pilots’ union recently announced a tentative agreement which, among other things, provides significant pay increases, along with efficiencies for the carrier and scope changes permitting expanded use of larger regional jets. The new Delta TA raises the market pay for commercial airline pilots, and effectively sets a new competitive standard for pilot pay. We will be responsive to the impact of the new Delta TA in our negotiations and will need to adjust our current contract proposal to be competitive with the Delta TA. Our proposal will include significant pay rate increases that are competitive with the new Delta TA, as well as scope and work rules that are competitive with the new Delta TA and permit us to remain competitive in the airline business.
Now is the time for all parties to put aside political differences and posturing, and focus on the remaining open contract items. What I ask of you is that we work together to complete our negotiations promptly.
We’ve been negotiating long enough. Let’s get this done.
Here's the key question, only three words long: how many seats?
With a new contract agreed to in principle by Delta Air Lines pilots, aircraft with up to 76 seats can be piloted by outsourced pilots from regional airlines like Skywest or Comair. The upside to Delta in this concession is clear: in exchange for a bit more money each hour for mainline pilots, Delta can now rely even more on regional jets to serve both big and small markets. With these pilots paid literally a small fraction of what mainline pilots earn, tremendous cost savings can be realized, some of which trickle down to consumers.
We've seen a regional jet creep the last five years across the industry, including in United and Continental Airlines. United pilots had agreed to a 70-seat scope clause in their last contract while Continental pilots had a 50-seat limit. This led to some interesting occurrences during the pre-merger period, where Continental not only refused to codeshare, but would not even sell (or show!) 70-seat United regional jet flights on their website.
United pilots are prepared to strike over this issue, but will that be necessary? Only time will tell.
Negotiations are going to be messy, but I cannot picture an outcome where aircraft with less than 71 seats will be flown by higher paid pilots. The industry trend says otherwise. Whether these vital regional aircraft will be piloted by the same regional pilots who currently operate them or with mainline pilots with much lower pay (unlikely), do not expect to see mainline pilots making $150/hr anytime soon when flying on a United CRJ-700 or ERJ-170.
I am of the opinion that United pilots would be wise to act like Delta and accept higher salaries in exchange for a 70-seat scope clause. First, I do not see this as a safety issue. I realize some of these regional pilots are paid very little with shorter rest periods between flights, but better pay does not necessarily translate to better performance. With a recent DOT directive that mandates greater rest times for these pilots, any fear over fatigue lessens.
Second, regional jets play an important role in keeping airfare lower for passengers like me who travel often on short flights and from smaller stations. I am on regional jets all the time between Burbank and San Francisco and between Washington Dulles and Philadelphia and I do see the young kids who are flying these planes. It does not bother me, though. In fact, while those in their mid 20's may not have as many hours behind the yoke, if well trained (and there is no reason to suspect otherwise), their instincts and response times should be faster than older pilots. This is the video game generation after all...
I would love nothing more than to see a quick resolution to this matter that leaves both sides happy. It won't happen, but I trust the specter of a strike is more a negotiating tactic than a realistic threat. Another United pilot strike would benefit no one. Remember 1985?