American Airlines Pilots Vote to Authorize Potential Strike

Date: Tuesday, May 2, 2023
Source: Wall Street Journal

Pilots at American Airlines Group Inc. voted overwhelmingly in favor of a measure authorizing union leaders to call for a strike, though the airline said negotiations are still progressing.

The vote results announced Monday don’t mean a walk-off is imminent or inevitable. Federal law makes it difficult for airline unions to go on strike.

The Allied Pilots Association, which represents some 15,000 American Airlines pilots, said 99% of votes were in favor of authorizing a strike, with 96% of its members voting.

The airline said Monday that it believes an agreement could come together quickly, with a handful of matters remaining to resolve, and characterized the vote as an expression of pilots’ sense of urgency.

“The finish line is in sight,” a spokeswoman said. “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.”

Capt. Ed Sicher, the union’s president, said that while pilots are willing to strike if necessary, reaching a deal for a new contract is still possible. He said pilots had proposed scheduling and work rules that could benefit pilots and make the airline more reliable.

“The best outcome is for APA and management to agree on an industry-leading contract—achieved through good-faith bargaining,” Mr. Sicher said.

American has already pledged to match pay increases outlined in a deal that Delta Air Lines Inc. struck with its own pilots earlier this year.

Pilots across North America have been negotiating for new labor deals, resuming talks that were largely put on hold during the Covid-19 pandemic. Such talks often become heated, but an industrywide shortage of pilots that emerged after carriers encouraged thousands to retire during the pandemic has given pilots more leverage to push for big pay increases and improvements in working conditions.

Pilots at Southwest Airlines Co. are set to begin voting on a similar strike authorization measure this month.

Such votes have been a common part of the choreography of airline negotiations, though actual walk-offs have been rare in the U.S.

Pilots at Delta and Alaska Air Group Inc. endorsed similar measures to give union leadership a mandate to call for strikes last year before eventually coming to terms with management.

The law that governs U.S. airline labor contracts requires that both sides exhaust all efforts to resolve their disputes before workers can strike. The National Mediation Board would have to agree that the talks had reached an impasse, and offer the sides a chance to arbitrate before releasing them into a 30-day “cooling off” period.

American had hoped it reached a deal with its pilots last fall, but union leaders rejected a tentative proposal that would have included pay raises of 20% over two years. United Airlines Holdings Inc. pilots in November turned down a deal that would have boosted pay by more than 14.5% over 18 months.

The deal reached by pilots at Delta earlier this year set a new high-water mark. It included raises of at least 34% over its four-year term.

American Chief Executive Robert Isom quickly responded, telling American’s pilots in a video message in March that the airline is prepared to match Delta’s pay rates and use the same profit-sharing formula as Delta’s pilots.

Mr. Isom said pay increases would total 40% on average in the fourth year of American’s proposed deal. A narrow-body jet captain at the top of the scale would make $475,000 a year by then and a wide-body captain could earn as much as $590,000.

He said American would also make significant improvements to the way it constructs trips and other quality-of-life measures pilots have prioritized.

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