Wednesday, March 16, 2005

Unionism and the Regionals

As I've mentioned previously, airline pilots tend to be a pretty conservative group. It is ironic, then, that airline piloting is such a heavily unionized profession. All of the "legacy carriers" (American, United, Delta, USAirways, Northwest, Continental) are union, and so are many of the newer "low cost carriers" like Southwest and America West. Only a few of the newcomers like jetBlue and Airtran are non-union, and segments of their respective pilot populations are pushing for unionization. The Air Line Pilots Association (ALPA) is by far the largest union in the industry, representing 64,000 pilots at 41 carriers.

Among regional airlines, unionization is a newer development. For years, the regionals were merely a brief stepping stone to the majors for non-military pilots. However, in recent years, "regional" airlines have become anything but regional: growing exponentially, flying long routes once flown by major carriers, flying more advanced jet aircraft. This shift, along with more recent downsizing at major carriers and fewer military pilots going straight to the majors, has prompted pilots to think of regional airline flying as a long-term, even lifelong, position. Unfortunately, regional airline pay and working conditions are far inferior to most major airlines. Consequently, unionism has made strong inroads at various regional airlines, although it is by no means universal.

Whether the unions have actually improved life at the regionals is open to interpretation. The strongest union is no match for "the invisible hand" of the job market. Despite predictions of pilot shortages, there is actually a surplus of qualified pilots at the regional level. Most of these are coming from low-pay, hard-working jobs like flight instructing or freight flying, & are more than willing to work like dogs for substandard wages if it means getting their hands on that new regional jet. After a year or two, the glamour wears off and the pilot realizes how underpayed he is, but good luck trying to improve things...there are always thousands of eager lowtimers waiting in the wings for his job, and they'll do it for even less money.

At individual airlines, improvements have certainly been made. Horizon pay improved drastically, especially for newer pilots, after their first union contract in 2001. Comair, a regional airline owned by Delta, went on strike to get their industry-leading contract. But once again, market forces foil efforts to raise the industry as a whole. Most airlines "codeshare" with numerous regionals, and if one gets too expensive, they'll simply shift more flying to a less-expensive one. After Comair pilots got their hard-won contract, Delta stopped awarding them new flying in favor of other carriers. Consequently, movement stagnated & first officers had to wait much longer to upgrade to captain. Comair pilots recently voted to freeze their pay in exchange for more flying from Delta.

The undisputed king of undercutting is Mesa Airlines. This airline's pilots are actually unionized, but they have some of the lowest wages and harshest usage in the industry - and the airline has grown in leaps and bounds because of it. Mesa now flies for America West, United, and USAirways, having replaced flying for quite a few more expensive regionals. Mesa pilots have taken the brunt of anti-Mesa sentiment in the industry - I know of captains that refuse them jumpseat priveledges - but they have no problems filling their classes. In fact, their CEO, Jon Orenstein, has stated that his pilots are overpaid since he has no problems filling classes. These "overpaid" pilots are making only $1400/month, but from a job market standpoint he is correct.

I don't think that unionization is a magic bullet. I'm not anti-union (I'm a Teamster's member here at Horizon), but I realize that market forces are neccesarily more powerful right now. This will likely continue until the number of qualified pilots goes down, or a culture change takes place where new pilots demand better compensation. Still, unions are a useful tool right now to unify and organize pilots at single airlines, and to effect a culture where professional pilots expect to be compensated as professionals.

For a future post: How ALPA has lost popularity by representing conflicting interests, & why the alternatives aren't much better.