The fight between frustrated airline pilots and three major carriers – United Airlines, Southwest Airlines and American Airlines – is coming to Denver, as pilots push back against their companies with pickets and threats of strikes.
On Friday, United Airlines pilots plan to picket the United Flight Training Center at 7500 E. 35th Ave. in Denver, along with nine other cities. Denver International Airport is a major hub for United.
“Enough is enough,” said Capt. Garth Thompson, United Air Line Pilots Association master executive council chair.
The protests by pilots for three of the biggest US airlines came after years of flight complications spurred by the COVID-19 pandemic, as cancellations and delays became the new normal for American travelers.
Airlines are trying to assuage travelers’ worries about potential roadblocks for their summer vacation plans.
“All United flights will operate as planned while our pilots exercise their right to distribute information and picket while off-duty,” the company said in a Thursday statement.
A spokesperson said it’s not a strike, as federal law bars airline workers from striking unless explicitly allowed by the National Mediation Board, the federal agency that oversees labor-management relations in the airline industry.
For United pilots, much of it comes down to stalled contract negotiations after four years, which include requests for changes to both work rules and their scheduling system. The airline counters that it’s offering 18% average pay increases to pilots, with 5% increases that started in December, and has already agreed on 79 improvements for the next contract.
But the unions aren’t so sure about the impact on travelers. Southwest Airlines Pilots Association President Casey Murray encouraged passengers to “make arrangements on other carriers so that their plans through the summer and fall are not disrupted.”
Capt. Dennis Tajer, spokesperson for the Allied Pilots Association, pointed to the high traffic numbers for both United and Southwest at DIA.
“How much of the lift in Denver is happening on this uncertainty?” he said in a phone interview. His union represents American Airlines pilots.
The team at DIA declined to comment while discussions and negotiations between the airlines and unions are underway.
With over 80% of US air travel flown by four carriers – American, United, Southwest and Delta – “only one of them has formulated a plan with their pilots,” Tajer said. Delta pilots approved a new contract on March 1, which includes over $7 billion in cumulative increases over four years.
The pressure from pilots comes as the Biden administration is also making demands of airlines.
On Monday, President Joe Biden announced the launch of an updated version of the government’s airline customer service dashboard at FlightRights.gov. It not only provides travelers with more transparency into airlines’ compensation policies, but also includes airline guarantees for additional compensation, such as cash, miles or travel vouchers.
He noted that only two airlines offer the latter. His administration plans to propose a new rule later this year mandating that all US airlines compensate passengers with meals, hotels, taxis, ride shares, rebooking fees and more “whenever they are the ones to blame for the cancellation or delay.”
And that’s on top of the ticket refund. Travelers in Canada, the European Union and more already benefit from additional compensation, Biden said.
“American air travelers deserve better.”
Next Tuesday, Denverite Nolan Hahn plans to fly American with his wife for their honeymoon.
“While we have travel insurance, I don’t know if it covers strikes,” the 33-year-old said, adding that the couple worries about losing money and missing their trip.
As a union member, “I don’t blame the pilots at all,” Hahn said. “I just hope America meets their demands quickly.”
In particular, Southwest Airlines has taken a lot of heat over the past few months. Last year, holiday trips were mired by cancellations and delays, with the airline accounting for 90% of all flights canceled through DIA — also a major hub for Southwest — at one point.
Then, in April, the airline grounded its departures after reports of “intermittent technology issues,” with around 200 of their flights at DIA delayed.
On Thursday, Southwest pilots became the latest to vote to authorize a strike.
Through the union, 99% of pilots voted in favor of the action. The union pointed to “operational disasters” and sluggish negotiations after three years.
“The lack of leadership and the unwillingness to address the failures of our organization have led us to this point,” Murray said. The union represents more than 10,000 Southwest pilots.
“Our pilots are tired of apologizing to our passengers on behalf of a company that refuses to place its priorities on its internal and external customers,” added Murray.
The union now has the ability to petition the National Mediation Board.
In a Thursday statement, Southwest employees and customers told that the pilots “are not on strike, and the vote result has no impact on our scheduled operations.”
For a strike to take place, several other steps would have to occur, including the release of both the union and Southwest from mediation by the National Mediation Board, thereby ending talks. Right now, they remain in mediation.
“This anticipated authorization vote result does not change our commitment to the negotiation process, and we look forward to continuing discussions with SWAPA at the negotiating table,” said Adam Carlisle, vice president of labor relations at Southwest.
On May 1, American Airlines pilots voted to authorize a strike after pushing for scheduling and work rule improvements in their contracts.
With 15,000 of the company’s pilots represented by the Allied Pilots Association, its membership “overwhelmingly” supported the move, with more than 99% of participants voting in favor.
“The summer travel season is almost here, and we’re all wondering whether this will be another summer of uncertainty for American Airlines,” said President and Captain Ed Sicher. “We will strike if necessary to secure the industry-leading contract that our pilots have earned and deserve – a contract that will position American Airlines for success.”
Members picked on May 1 at the airline’s 10 US hubs in Boston, Charlotte, Chicago, Dallas/Fort Worth, Los Angeles, Miami, New York, Philadelphia, Phoenix and Washington, DC
Sicher pointed to an alternative. “The best outcome is for APA and management to agree on an industry-leading contract – achieved through good-faith bargaining – benefiting our pilots, American Airlines, and the passengers we serve,” he said in a statement.
American Airlines remains “confident that an agreement for our pilots is within reach and can be finalized quickly,” said spokesperson Sarah Jantz. “The finish line is in sight.”