A Challenge to ALPA Captains Paul Rice and John Prater
On the last day of 2009, Caroline Salas of Bloomberg (edited) wrote an article on the regional airline industry titled: Pilot Complaints Highlight Hazards of Regional Airlines. In it were references to Gulfstream International (a training academy and airline) that were first reported by Susan Carey and Andy Pasztor of the Wall Street Journal on December 1, 2009. Salas quotes Captain Paul Rice, First Vice President of the Air Line Pilots Association (ALPA) alleging that the industry contracts flying to regional carriers to circumvent pilot agreements at the mainline carriers.
Rice says: "The way the industry is structured is that management will go out and find a new airline and start siphoning off the business to whoever will fly for cheaper. The American public is only just starting to wake up to that. What they are buying is the lowest-cost operation that's available."
This is a gross misrepresentation of the truth. What Rice does not say is that his very own union is a primary reason why the industry is structured the way it is. ALPA and others negotiate contracts with mainline carriers that proscribe the terms on which an airline can outsource flying to its regional partners. Under the restrictive collective bargaining agreements common in this industry, most airlines can’t even make these important business decisions without the authorization of the pilot unions.
It is high time for ALPA and Captains Prater and Rice to tell the truth and take some responsibility for the current structure of the industry, even when it doesn’t necessarily serve the interests of big labor and its members.
In a recent post, Sacred Cows and Fatigue, I referenced a thought-provoking column by Michael E. Levine in Aviation Daily that took on some of the debate over regional flying today. In it, Levine noted that the February 2009 Colgan Air crash near Buffalo raised issues about pilot experience, fatigue and performance that “underscore the need to revisit negotiated seniority rules and pay scales that pay pilots more to fly bigger aircraft, leaving some of the least experienced pilots to do some of the most demanding flying.”
Earlier, in US Pilot Unions’ Dirty Little Secrets, I discussed the complex structure of airline networks that have developed over time through mergers; acquisitions; regulation and, importantly, union influence. And one place that labor influence plays out is in pilot contract “scope” clauses that too often hamstring an airline’s operations in the name of job protection for pilots. The question we in the industry should be asking is whether those scope clauses really serve that purpose or, rather, whether some union leaders use scope in a way that is both misguided and ultimately harmful to the pilots they represent.
My Challenge to Captains Rice and Prater
Based on the testimony of ALPA since the Colgan accident, there has been nothing said that makes me think that the nation’s largest pilot union is ready to take responsibility and become part of the solution. Yes, regulatory barriers play a role in many airlines’ ability to serve certain markets profitably. But at the same time scope clauses also contribute to a situation in which airlines are forced to outsource flying to their regional partners when mainline economics cannot support that flying. This fact is as true today as in the late 1980’s when the architecture of the network carrier's relationship with the regional airline industry was being drawn.
How about this resolution: Beginning in 2011, ALPA and other unions that hold collective bargaining rights for airline workers actually employ the members they now represent. Let’s use pilots as the example:
Let’s say Airline X needs pilots for 1.7 million block hours of mainline flying. Of that, the airline needs .6 million hours of 777 flying; .2 million hours of 767 flying; .5 million hours of 737 flying; and .4 million hours of 757 flying. Based on its projections of the revenue it can earn to fly these routes, Airline X is willing to pay $1.2 billion for pilot labor. In addition, and a result of the current industry structure, Airline X will require .5 million hours of CRJ flying and .5 million hours of EMB70 flying for which it can pay $500 million. So, in total, Airline X needs pilots to perform 2.7 million hours of flying and is willing to pay $1.7 billion for those services.
Based on calculations compiled in MIT’s Airline Data Project and an assumed split for captains and first officers, on average, the industry pays a captain cost per block hour of $325 and a first officer cost per block hour of $225 for small narrowbody flying. For 757 flying, the cost per captain block hour is $350 and $250 per first officer hour. And for widebody flying, captains cost $563 per block hour and first officers earn $400 per block hour.
So, in our example, simple math produces a mainline cost that is $85 million more than what Airline X can pay based on projected revenue for that flying. As an employer, ALPA would either have to agree to reduce the rate charged for each pilot or find another way to get the flying done at that cost. That might mean increasing pilot productivity beyond the average 40-50 hours per month most network pilots now fly. Or expanding the arbitrary and artificially low limit most unions put on pilot duty time. Or rethinking the level of benefits provided. But the exercise itself – one not dissimilar to what most airlines are trying to do through labor negotiations to correct for bloat and inefficiency in current contracts – would be an eye-opener for labor leaders who don’t now have to trouble themselves with the hard work of making the airline’s budget actually balance.
The Math Is the Math
Now ALPA has to decide if it is in their best interest to maintain a greater number of pilots (today’s practice in which younger pilots ultimately subsidize the generous pay provided more experienced flyers) or fewer pilots who would earn more based on what the market is willing to pay.
That decision must include many considerations, including:
- Is there really a difference in the cost of a life flying on a 50-seat regional jet versus a 250 -seat B777?;
- As market economics have made mainline narrowbody flying uneconomic in a large number of markets, is it good practice for a union to negotiate lower rates and different work rules for pilots at one carrier in order to support higher wages and more time off for pilots at another carrier?;
- Is it the case, as Prater testified before Congress, that “a safety benefit is derived from all flying being done from a single pilot-seniority list because it requires that first officers fly with many captains and learn from their experience and wisdom before becoming captains themselves”?;
- If ALPA actually employed all pilots, then wouldn’t the creation of a single pilot seniority list facilitate the implementation of a system to address the experience problem at the regionals where, as Levine suggests, a 30-year 737 captain might actually be assigned by ALPA to fly the demanding flying that today is performed by 50 seat CRJ pilots?; and
- Does a system of pilot promotion from right seat to left seat; from regional to mainline in a market that promises only a growth rate roughly equal to the rate of attrition at best, really work anymore?
As employers, the unions might be forced to make decisions like management must – based on what is in the long-term best interests of the airline and all of its employees. From that position, it is much harder to throw stones or seek job protections and wages that don’t recognize market realities. ALPA and the unions would have to answer some really tough questions.
Given that the market offers little promise for growth like that experienced between 1978 and 2001, it is time for a new compensation and work rule model. Perhaps it is time to put the most experienced pilots on trips that include the most demanding flying.
And it is time that organized labor, particularly ALPA, to step up to the plate and become part of the solution rather than continue to contribute to a troubled industry’s troubles by not accepting any responsibility for today's structural predicament. ALPA can put its dues money where its mouth is and truly promote safety. But that might just mean a total overhaul of the way pilots are compensated.