Soaring U.S. Airline Traffic Has Tightly Scheduled Pilots Frazzled
The abrupt post-pandemic return to busy flying schedules has left many airline pilots feeling stressed. Their frustration — combined with ongoing contract talks at most major airlines — has led to continuing pilot demonstrations at major airports across the U.S.
The April 1 demonstration by Alaska Airlines pilots was among the largest pilot demonstration ever. Will McQuillen, chairman of the Alaska chapter of the Air Line Pilots Association (ALPA), said that 1,543 pilots at five bases participated, including 743 in Seattle, based on RSVPs and the number of picket signs handed out. “At the picket, [ALPA president] Joe DePete was with us, [along with] ALPA executive staff, and [pilot union] chairmen from Southwest and American. They all said they’d never seen anything like it,” McQuillen said. The turnout was equal to about half of Alaska’s 3,100 pilots.
Delta Air Lines pilots will demonstrate at the Salt Lake City airport on April 7, and more events are scheduled later in April at airports in Detroit, Minneapolis, and Seattle. American Airlines pilots have demonstrated this year at hubs in Dallas-Fort Worth, Los Angeles, and Miami; and are eyeing future events, including at the airline’s Charlotte hub.
At every pilot demonstration, the sentiments are similar.
“Our pilots are working longer days and flying more and flights per day with shorter rests in between, and we’re tired,” said Evan Baach, spokesperson for the Delta chapter of ALPA. “We’re working a record amount of overtime to get our customers to their destinations safely and on time.”
“We are committed to venting [our] frustration with the company and sending a clear message to management that we’re tired and we’re fatigued,” Baach said. “The company is flying more flights than they have pilots to staff, and during a bad weather day at a large hub, any kind of buffer has evaporated.”
The situation reflects the dynamics of a rapid recovery following the airline downsizing that occurred after flying fell dramatically in 2020 due to the pandemic. The pace of the ramp-up is clear from the number of people passing through U.S. airport security daily. On April 6, for instance, the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) said 1,978,691 people cleared security, up 61 percent from the same day a year earlier. A similar surge occurs daily. Despite receiving $54 billion from Congress in payroll support intended to keep employees on the payroll, the passenger airlines still downsized through voluntary departures to survive.
At Delta, contract negotiations are proceeding, Baach said, but the pace is slow. The next session is scheduled for the week of April 11. Delta pilots demonstrated in Atlanta on March 10, and in Los Angeles on March 25. Delta has about 13,310 pilots.
A Delta spokesperson said: “All of our people, including our pilots, are working hard to restore our airline and deliver for our customers as we emerge from the pandemic. We are grateful for and proud of their efforts.”
“We continuously evaluate our staffing models and plan ahead so that we can recover quickly when unforeseen circumstances arise, and the resilience of the Delta people is unmatched in that regard,” the spokesperson said. “Pilot schedules remain in line with all requirements set by the FAA as well as those outlined in our pilot contract.”
Alaska pilots demonstrated in Anchorage, Los Angeles, Portland, Ore., and San Francisco, as well as Seattle, during the week of March 28. In general, local media did not report the number of protestors, but Anchorage radio station KTOO reported that nearly 100 pilots picketed at Ted Stevens International Airport. McQuillen said the demonstrations have not yet benefitted pilot negotiators, who resumed talks with the airline on April 5.
“So far it has not resulted in constructive communication at the table,” he said. “It has not moved the ball.” Rather, McQuillen said, Alaska messaged pilots promoting its “non-ratifiable” proposal. Key issues remain scope, which limits the amount of flying done by partners, and work rules. The last contract, in 2013, largely retained scope language from a 2009 contract. “We are seeking industry standards which are in place at competitors,” McQuillen said, adding that the two sides have not yet discussed salary.
An Alaska spokesperson described the industry’s plight: “Across the industry, airlines are seeing a strain on pilot capacity as air travel demand returns, airlines are all hiring, and airlines are hiring faster than we’re able to hire and train new pilots.” Over six days, Alaska cancelled about 400 flights, including 120 on April 1, the day of the demonstration, but the airline has acknowledged that the demonstration did not cause the cancellations.
“The primary driver for cancellations over the weekend is the shortage of pilots available to fly versus what was planned when we built our April schedule in January,” the spokesperson said. Alaska said it has offered a top scale of $280 an hour for captains, and $100 an hour for new-hire first officers: the average captain, with overtime, can make $341,000 annually.
Dennis Tajer, spokesman for the Allied Pilots Association (APA), which represents 14,000 American pilots, said airlines “have a big problem” as an even heavier summer flying season approaches. The carriers are understaffed. “Management teams are denying there is a problem even as they have no plans for how to staff this recovery. They are just collecting revenue, selling tickets for flights they can’t staff, and hoping that things go well rather than sharing with pilots across the industry how they are going to do this,” he said.
“We can’t speak for other pilot groups but we can read their picket signs,” Tajer said. “They say scheduling issues are wearing them out. They say ‘stop the madness and run a rational airline.’”Subscribe Now to Airline Weekly