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Pilot unions are negotiating contracts with airlines

AYESHA RASCOE, HOST:

Flying a plane isn't a job you could do from home during the pandemic. And now that life's returning somewhat to normal, pilot unions are getting around to negotiating new contracts for their members. On Friday, American Airlines announced it reached a deal with its pilots. But unions for two other major airlines, Southwest and United, are still negotiating and have ramped up pressure on management recently. Jim Higgins is a former pilot and now a professor of aviation at the University of North Dakota. He joins us now to explain what's behind these negotiations. Thank you for being with us.

JIM HIGGINS: Thank you for having me. Happy to be here.

RASCOE: We don't know many details about this American Airlines agreement, right? But we know that they have reached some deal.

HIGGINS: Yes, it's called an agreement in principle, which basically means the negotiators on both sides have mapped out concepts and have said, we agree to this in concept. You agree to that in concept. And the next step's going to be they have to write language that matches what the agreement was at the table. Then it'll go back to the labor union for a vote both at their executive level and then actually what we call membership ratification. So every single pilot will have to vote to ratify.

RASCOE: Obviously, the pandemic affected the airline industry dramatically at first, but then it came back. How did that affect working conditions for pilots?

HIGGINS: It was a very difficult time. Pilots, flight attendants, gate agents - a lot of folks that were frontline employees got sick. And many of them, you know, were sick for a long period of time. And it was a very difficult time for sure. And then there was a lot of uncertainty, if you remember, in the early days of the pandemic. And so there was a lot of angst and anxiety that was generated throughout the ranks.

RASCOE: And so then when things picked back up again, were there enough pilots to do - 'cause, you know, everybody's flying everywhere now these days.

HIGGINS: That's exactly the problem that happened. We're all happy that the recovery happened a lot quicker than perhaps everyone anticipated. But on the other side of that, it happened so quickly that a lot of - not just pilots. We're talking mechanics and flight attendants, a lot of other groups that help these flights operate - they simply weren't staffed appropriately.

RASCOE: So what they're looking for is more money and maybe more time off - things of that nature?

HIGGINS: That's a big one. Compensation's always a big issue - quality of life, work rules, how schedules are constructed. Also, there's another concept known as retroactive pay. One of the questions that comes up is, hey, the company was able to get a windfall during that time. We want to be compensated for that. That's going to be something we're going to pay really close attention to, as well, to see what happens there.

RASCOE: Earlier this month, 99% of Southwest pilots voted to authorize a strike. I mean, that's a lot of people. That's almost everybody, right? And the United union held an informational picket. So how far are we from seeing an actual strike?

HIGGINS: Well, we know we're not within 30 days 'cause there's a 30-day cooling-off period that has to occur under the Railway Labor Act. However, once the National Mediation Board releases both parties from negotiations, then at the end of that 30 days, they're both free to engage in self-help, which includes a strike.

RASCOE: Most other private sector unions are free to go on strike if they're not under contract, right? We're seeing that with screenwriters right now. The government doesn't usually interfere, doesn't say, you have to get out there and write these shows. But it's different for pilots, right? They can't just go on strike. The government can interfere in their labor negotiations, right?

HIGGINS: That is correct. The pilots and other airline labor groups fall under the Railway Labor Act, which is much different than the rest of the country, which falls under the National Labor Relations Act. On the pilot side, the government can absolutely step in and stop a strike, up to and including, ultimately, Congress can mandate an actual agreement.

RASCOE: If there is a strike, what would that look like for the pilots and other airline workers and obviously for those planning, you know, to take a trip this summer?

HIGGINS: Well, strikes are very difficult. There are no winners in strikes. Consumers, of course, become completely inconvenienced. People travel for very important reasons - sometimes, it's a wedding. Sometimes, it's a funeral. Business people travel for very important reasons, including, you know, meetings, trade shows, etc., to help their business. So it's going to be a catastrophe for the passengers - certainly, for the front-line workers, the pilots - I can tell you, I'm the son of a striker from Continental Airlines in the 1980s. It's poverty - could be a poverty-inducing event for the family. It's a very difficult time. No winner there. And, of course, the companies - it can often take years and years for the companies to dig out. Their profitability will probably evaporate overnight. It just doesn't take much to do that. And so hopefully, we don't get to that point. And hopefully, the idea is there's enough leverage that both sides will say, hey, we need to come to an agreement.

RASCOE: That's Jim Higgins, professor of aviation at the University of North Dakota. Thank you so much for joining us.

HIGGINS: Thank you for having me. I appreciate it. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ayesha Rascoe is a White House correspondent for NPR. She is currently covering her third presidential administration. Rascoe's White House coverage has included a number of high profile foreign trips, including President Trump's 2019 summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Hanoi, Vietnam, and President Obama's final NATO summit in Warsaw, Poland in 2016. As a part of the White House team, she's also a regular on the NPR Politics Podcast.