By John McDermott
United Airlines, Pilots Agree to Preliminary Contract
United Airlines has reached an Agreement in Principle (AIP) with the Air Line Pilots Association (ALPA), the union representing the company’s pilots, on a new contract. The announcement comes soon after American Airlines pilots similarly announced a plan to vote on a new contract later this summer.
If United’s new contract is approved by pilots, flight crew members will see between 35% and 40% raises over 4 years depending on fleet type. The contract will also bring improvements to “quality of work-life, compensation, job security, work rules, retirement, benefits.” It is worth $10 billion over its lifespan.
Calls for a contract strengthened after the covid-19 pandemic subsided and Delta Air Lines announced massive pay raises for its pilots. However, ALPA says it has been negotiating with United management for more than four years to reach a new agreement.
“We promised our world-class pilots the industry-leading contract they deserve, and we’re pleased to have reached an agreement with ALPA on it,” United Airlines said in a statement. “The four-year agreement, once ratified, will deliver a meaningful pay raise and quality of life improvements for our pilots while putting the airline on track to achieve the incredible potential of our United Next strategy.”
United pilots have been putting increasing pressure on management for months. Pilots picketed outside company offices this spring and say they have been ready to strike since then. Pressure increased when United faced massive flight cancellations and delays earlier this month. Though United blamed air traffic control staffing shortages and weather for the issues, pilots said that internal staffing was also a major issue that could have been solved with a better contract.
The FAA also said that it was not to blame for United’s issues and that it was ready to work with the carrier to resolve the situation.
American Airlines pilots reached a similar AIP in May, and voting will be finalized later this summer. Delta’s contract, approved in March, includes $7 billion in cumulative increases pay and benefits over four years.
Since the covid-19 pandemic subsided and travel in the United States returned to near-pre-pandemic levels, pilots across the country have called for improved work rules and better pay. Regional airline pilots received pay increases quickly after the pandemic subsided, thanks in large part to increases by American Airlines’ wholly-owned subsidiaries. Other regionals subsequently matched these pay hikes.
Mainline companies have been slower to ratify contract updates. The big three legacy airlines made their moves months after the last regionals did so. Southwest Airlines pilots have also been fighting for changes at their company, though their demands go further. A meltdown over the 2022 holiday season exposed gaping issues in Southwest’s crew scheduling system and work rules.
Delta, American, United, and Southwest are expected to hire 8,000 pilots over the next year. Per Reuters, the United States is short roughly 10,000 pilots, a gap projected to last until 2027. Though the United States has seen an increase in the number of people passing commercial pilot checkrides in the last 18 months, to date roughly one Airline Transport Pilot retires for each new ATP pilot certified.
Airlines are fighting hard to find solutions to this problem, including fighting for an increase in the pilot retirement age and a possible loophole in the rule that requires 2 pilots in the cockpit of each airline flight. Since the covid-19 pandemic began, pilots have maintained that the US aviation industry has a pay shortage, not a pilot shortage, and that more people would become pilots if the high entry fee to start flying could be better managed.
Airlines already have methods to help pilots start their careers. American Airlines’ wholly-owned regional carriers have cadet programs that will reimburse cadets for some of their flight training; Mesa Airlines has a program that allows pilots to build flight hours at a reduced cost per hour; Delta Air Lines recently announced its own pilot pathway program; and United Airlines manages its own flight school in Arizona.
United pilots still need to vote on their new contract, a process that could take weeks or months after negotiators finalize the final contract language. However, this new agreement will certainly be a welcome relief for pilots. Hopefully, it will decrease tension between crews and management and help the airline run a smooth operation going forward.